The creation of Act 250

Tuesday May 25, 2010

Act 250 was conceived 40 years ago on May 28 in Brattleboro and after an active pregnancy was birthed nine-plus months later by the legislature signed into law by Gov. Deane Davis.

Before commenting on the conception let me note that the scene for it was set on May 14. 1969, at the Second Annual Governor's Conference on Natural Resources held at the Statehouse in Montpelier. The conference theme was; "Maintaining Environmental Quality In Vermont." Some 500 attended. In the opening panel that had the task of identifying Vermont's environmental problems, land development issues were only generally alluded to. Water pollution, air pollution and other environmental issues received the most attention. It was at this conference that Gov. Davis established his Commission on Environmental Control, chaired by Art Gibb, "to develop a comprehensive program of proposed legislation for presentation to the 1970 session of the General Assembly" to protect and preserve our environment.

Two weeks after this conference, Gov. Davis and some of his cabinet heads and staff came to Brattleboro for the Chamber of Commerce's first annual Governor's Day. The day began with a breakfast meeting with the executive board of the Windham Regional Commission. The commission invited the governor to breakfast to talk with him about the second home development taking place in western Windham County, development that stretched from Whitingham and Halifax in the south through the Deerfield Valley towns of Wilmington and Dover to Stratton and Winhall in the north. Wilmington and Dover were the towns focused on in this meeting.

The breakfast was fascinating. Jack Veller, the commission's chairman and also the chairman of the Dover Planning Commission and a Realtor, described the second home development then occurring in Wilmington and Dover, development stimulated by the three ski areas in these towns (there were nine ski areas in the county at this time). In Wilmington there were some 36 active subdivisions, in Dover, 25. Some like the 1,100-acre Chimney Hill development in Wilmington were virtually sold out. Others like the 4,000-acre Dover Hills in Dover were in process. Still others like Haystack in Wilmington were in the planning stage. The Dover Hills land was one-sixth of Dover's land base. Land speculation and sale was occurring at an order of magnitude never before seen in Vermont.

Gov. Davis learned that some subdivision lots were a quarter to half acre in size on 10-15 degree slopes; that water was promised lot buyers in some subdivisions but no water source was identified; that on site septic was resulting in sewage overflow on steep slopes; that some subdivision roads could not accommodate fire trucks or school buses; that development on high elevation sites had significant ecological impacts, that town services and officials were overwhelmed by developers' demands on them, and much more. It's clear that the Vermont Development Department's 1960's "Beckoning Country" slogan had over beckoned here.

This was all new to the governor. He was amazed by what he heard and asked many questions, stretching a breakfast that was to last an hour or so to almost two hours. When it ended ,he said he wanted to come back soon to spend a day touring some of the developments we described to him, and also to talk with some of the local officials, real estate agents, bankers and others involved in the land development business.

He returned two weeks later. We spent the morning touring some developments in Wilmington, including Chimney Hill, and had lunch with the Wilmington Selectboard and listers. The afternoon was spent in Dover where we drove some of the 12-15 miles of road in Dover Hills seeing one acre lots, one after another. Dinner was at the Red Mill in Wilmington with more than 100 developers, town officials, bankers, real estate agents and others present. There was lots of back and forth with the governor asking many questions.

The day's tour and gatherings made it abundantly evident that the towns did not have the manpower or expertise to guide and regulate the second home development that was taking place. Local plans and bylaws like zoning were only now being written. State standards and controls were needed to fill the gap.

At June's end Gov. Davis came to Windham County once again, this time to address the annual meeting of the Windham Commission. He told the Commission that he was directing the Gibb Commission to make a land development control bill a top priority for the 1970 legislative session. He also said that he was forming a technical advisory team, headed by Walter Blucher, to look into the proposed new 2,000 acre Haystack Development in Wilmington.

Conception had more than occurred. What came to be Act 250 was off and running. The next eight months were a busy time in Windham County and Montpelier. Many of the Gibb Commission members, legislators and others came to see what was happening m the Deerfield Valley and Windham County. The governor's technical advisory team reviewed several large developments and Gov. Davis himself personally intervened to stop two undesirable major second home development projects, one in Stratton and the other in the unorganized town of Somerset. The Health Department enacted interim health subdivision regulations in September to deal with some immediate sewage disposal health issues. Jack Veller served on the Governor's Environmental Control Commission and Arthur Westing and Bill Schmidt of the Windham Regional Commission were on the Environmental Control Commission's Advisory Committee.

In March 1970 House Bill 417 on Environmental Control, which came to be known as Act 250, became law.

Bill Schmidt of Dummerston was executive director of the Windham Regional Planning Commission, the first of Vermont's regional planning commissions, which was created in June 1965. At the Commission he was involved in the creation and early implementation of Act 250 through 1983. In the mid-80s he served on the District II Environmental Commission for three years.


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