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July 17, 2023

Building Back Better in Vermont

Act 250 and zoning changes urgently needed.

First, kudos to Vermont first responders, road crews, volunteers, neighbors helping neighbors, town and state officials and even FEMA for a very quick and effective response to the immediate flooding emergency. We owe it to all of them and those who’ve been hurt to learn all we can to prevent or at least mitigate recurrences.

Second, we did learn a lot from Irene. Areas which were badly damaged by that storm were not as badly damaged this time – party because the storm track was different, partly because after Irene we replaced aged infrastructure built after the 1927 floods, but also because we built back better: bigger culverts, stronger bridge abutments, and better designed drainage.

What’s most disappointing is to see structures and areas which were rebuilt after Irene flooded again. Should we have rebuilt in those places? Should we rebuild there again? Should what used to be called trailer parks still be located where they were first sited on land which was and is cheap because it is flood-prone? Those flooded out of their homes face a particularly hard time because Vermont is already critically short of inexpensive housing. Some may join the ranks of the long-term unhoused even though they were, literally, staying above water before.

We can make better land available for re-siting manufactured housing than the old flood-prone locations. But the need is now and much of that “better land” is zoned against manufactured housing (although not against decaying farmsteads). Moreover, nothing can happen quickly at an any scale given the onerous Act 250 requirements for any development of ten or more units. From a permitting PoV, it is much easier although short-sighted to rebuild in place.

During the last session the legislature considered both zoning reform and lifting many Act 250 restrictions. It did make it easier to build multifamily housing in downtown areas; that’s a good idea although, as we’ve just seen, some of our downtowns are flood-prone themselves. It is time for a special session of the legislature to deal with the problem they left behind: opening up rural areas of the state, most of the state, to low-cost housing, establishing rapid permitting, and vastly reducing the ability of those who’d rather not see development on other people’s land to delay projects after permits have been granted. There will be reconstruction money. It must go to building back better. There will also be a flood of private money if it can be used effectively instead of dissipated in years of legal battles before anything can be built.

There is a very real danger that, if the legislature does come back, it will squander funds and energy on short-term fixes like perpetually extending motel housing. It will be a huge challenge for Governor Scott to keep them focused on structural reform rather than feel-good appropriations to appease noisy “advocates”.

Yes, Vermont will look somewhat different if there is more visible housing along our roadsides. On the other hand, Vermont will look a lot better the morning after the next extreme weather event if we build back better now on dry land and concede the flood plains back to the rivers.  

See also: Legislators Squandering Money

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