Ag secretary refuses to answer questions about Act 250 exemption for farms

MONTPELIER — Another member of Gov. Phil Scott's administration has denied a request from the Legislature for information.

Lawmakers last month asked Agriculture Secretary Anson Tebbetts to explain why farms are exempt from the state land-use law, Act 250. Farms are among the top water polluters in the state, and lawmakers are seeking to understand why farms aren't required to follow the same land-use laws as other industries. Tebbetts on Wednesday made several statements in response but did not provide answers to questions from lawmakers about information they requested months ago. The secretary said he had not conducted an analysis that would enable him to respond to lawmakers' questions.

Instead, he said, the system currently in place "works," without providing a justification for how or why it works.

Tebbetts was asked last month to explain whether the agriculture industry's exemption from land-use law contributes to pollution of public waters, as part of an analysis now underway by the Commission on Act 250. This group of lawmakers is updating the law, which was enacted five decades ago. The group is statutorily directed to find out whether an agricultural exemption from Act 250 contributes to Vermont farms' pollution problems.

Tebbetts said farms are already heavily regulated. At least one of those regulations, having to do with the distance of farm structures from property lines and other objects, leads to public involvement in the regulatory process, he said. But over the course of several exchanges Tebbetts repeatedly said he didn't know how to answer the question lawmakers had actually posed.

"Are there any scenarios you can think of," Sen. Brian Campion, D-Bennington said, "where the Act 250 exemption for agriculture would pollute the waters [of the state] in any way at all?"

"It's very difficult to answer, because all the things we have thought about are under regulation already," said Tebbetts. "It's just not in the Act 250 realm. It's being handled in a different realm."

Regulations are enforced by the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets. That same agency seeks to promote and support farmers and agriculture, said Brian Shupe, the executive director of the Vermont Natural Resources Council. The Department of Environmental Conservation should regulate farming, Shupe said, because Vermont's failure to improve water quality suggests the current system does not work.

Stephanie Smith, the chief policy enforcement officer for the Agency of Agriculture, maintained that the agency through its own rules upholds the same water quality protections that Act 250 would. But if farmers must already comply with the same water quality standards as they would under Act 250, Campion asked, why continue the exemption? Because the rules the Agency of Agriculture has put in place "are as supportive of water quality" as Act 250 would be, Smith said.

Tebbetts is not the first Scott administration appointee to refuse to answer questions from lawmakers.

His boss, Natural Resources Secretary Julie Moore, recently refused to provide an analysis that a group she led was directed by law to produce.

Moore and several other of Scott's administrators had been asked by the Legislature to analyze what would be the best long-term funding method to pay for the multibillion-dollar effort to stem the state's water pollution. Her group was also tasked with writing draft legislation to put that long-term funding mechanism into effect.

Instead of providing a long-term funding recommendation, however, Moore and her group wrote that in the short term there was no need to raise any additional revenue. That's largely because Tebbetts' agency hadn't yet figured out how to spend the money effectively, she said.


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