MONTPELIER — A narrow revision of Act 250 that addresses forest fragmentation and recreational trails has passed a second reading in the state Senate and is set to be taken up for a third and final reading vote Thursday.
The bill, a dramatically slimmed down version of H.926, provides Act 250 jurisdiction for development in forest lands. It seeks to prevent those lands from being broken up into smaller parcels separated by development, roads and utility corridors, and therefore closer to human activities that might damage natural habitat.
The bill also exempts recreational trails from Act 250, the state's land use planning law, until January of 2022, and directs the Agency of Natural Resources to report to the House and Senate natural resources committees with recommended best practices for the state's recreational trail system.
The slimmed-down bill is an attempt to move forward on important issues, while leaving the remaining proposals for Act 250 reforms until the next legislative session, said state Sen. Christopher Bray, chair of the Natural Resources and Energy Committee. In particular, he said the Legislature has been examining forest fragmentation since 2013, and that the evidence suggests action is needed.
"We're really overdue to move forward with what we have," he said.
An additional amendment may be considered on Thursday, Bray said.
The bill, in its original form as approved by the House of Representatives, was a more ambitious attempt to update Act 250, the land use law which turned 50 years old this year. But COVID-19 put the bill on the back burner, and disagreement over more controversial proposals — most notably, the proposed exemption of housing development in designated downtown areas — led committee members to decide on a less ambitious course.
The forest fragmentation section of the bill met with some resistance, as state Sens. Brian Collamore, R-Rutland, Bobby Starr, D-Essex/Orleans, and John Rodgers, D-Essex/Orleans, questioned Bray about that part of the proposal. Starr and Collamore posed questions about the potential impact on private property owners, and whether the regulations would lead to diminished property values.
Rodgers said it's important to consider why property owners want to subdivide and sell their land: The high cost of property taxes.
"The current use program is a tool, but its an imperfect tool," Rodgers said. "Those of us who own forests and farmland shouldn't be paying the taxes we have to pay. ... We have never gotten to root cause of fragmentation and why property owners are subdividing land, and a lot of it has to do with taxes."
Rodgers also cited concern with the significant role the Agency of Natural Resources will be asked to play in the bill's proposals, and whether the agency has the resources to do the work. "There's no funds for them to do this work," he said.
Sen. Corey Parent, D-Franklin, asked that the Senate divide the bill into sections for a vote. The body agreed, and the forest fragmentation sections passed 24-6, while the trails language passed 30-0.
"I don't feel it's necessarily as thought out as much as it could be regarding the impact it could have on landowners in rural Vermont," Parent said of his reasons for asking the split vote. "I don't support that part of the bill because of that section, but I wanted to register my support for the trails language."
Greg Sukiennik covers Vermont government and politics for New England Newspapers. Reach him at email@example.com.