BRATTLEBORO—It’s safe to say Julie Moore, in her first public appearance here as state Agency of Natural Resources secretary, wasn’t hoping to hear the word “Kafkaesque.”
But that was just one of the terms that area residents used at a March 2 meeting to describe their frustrations with the agency’s permitting processes and with the state’s Act 250 land-use regulations.
During the penultimate stop on her statewide “listening tour,” Moore and her deputy secretary, Peter Walke, sought to assure the agitated crowd that they are working to address inefficiencies and bureaucratic entanglements in order to make environmental permitting more user-friendly.
Moore also defended her employees, saying they’ve taken on an increasing workload without much additional assistance.
“I think the people that work at our agency are passionate environmental stewards who really work at the agency because of the mission of the agency — not because it’s a state job,” she said. “I think the challenge, frankly, is one where we continue to have additional requirements and things we’re being asked to do ... and they very rarely come with resources.”
Moore was chosen to lead the Agency of Natural Resources in December by then-Gov. elect Phil Scott. She brings a background in civil engineering and environmental science as well as six years of previous experience at the agency, where she was involved in efforts to address Lake Champlain pollution.
As secretary, Moore heads a sprawling agency with about 600 employees. It encompasses the departments of Fish and Wildlife; Forests, Parks and Recreation; and Environmental Conservation.
Nearly all of the questions at the Brattleboro forum, however, were complaints about the state’s environmental permitting and Act 250 land-use permitting. Act 250 is a related but separate process governed by the state Natural Resources Board, an independent entity.
Speakers complained that permitting is too lengthy, too complicated and too unpredictable for those who are trying to undertake a construction project, make a land-use change, or start a business.
Recent statistics gathered by local officials have shown that Windham and Windsor counties have the state’s longest wait for Act 250 permits — 50 days, on average. Some wait much longer than that.
Delays are a concern for Steve Gordon, president and chief executive officer at Brattleboro Memorial Hospital. Gordon told Moore that he recently waited months for state approval to add 20 parking spaces at the hospital, primarily due to stormwater-permitting issues.
“We kind of got lost a little bit in the bureaucracy,” Gordon said. “Six months for parking is just not appropriate from my standpoint. It really, really affects operations.”
Gordon noted that the hospital is undertaking a $22.7 million expansion project. “And I’m really getting concerned about Act 250 — the process and how long that might take,” he said.
Meg Streeter, a Wilmington real estate agent, brought another permitting story to the meeting. She talked about a landowner who was trying to subdivide a parcel that had a 1970s-era Act 250 permit attached to it.
Trying to make required changes to that permit, Streeter said, took more than four years. “The person lost a lot of money because of the length of time involved, and she finally gave up,” Streeter said.
’A Kafkaesque maze’
There were other examples of state permitting nightmares. Wilmington officials complained of an arduous, expensive review and modification process for a footbridge, while local resident Daniel Kornguth said he’s had a lot of Act 250-related trouble while trying to start a small business in Guilford.
Ned Childs of Dummerston labeled Act 250 a “Kafkaesque maze” and said it’s a “broken process.”
Walke noted that ANR doesn’t have direct oversight over Act 250, though the agency is a “player” in that process and has an interest in making it run more smoothly.
Moore added that, while some Act 250 changes could come via legislation, she is “thinking more about what a comprehensive approach would be between the Natural Resources Board and our agency — looking at some of the concerns being raised related to Act 250.”
As chairwoman of the state Natural Resources Board, Diane Snelling said she’s heard similar Act 250 stories.
“There’s a lot of pent-up emotion about it that we need to address by talking directly to the public,” Snelling said in an interview. “It’s very clear to me — I’ve been in this job less than a year — that there’s quite a bit of frustration.”
Snelling didn’t attend the March 2 meeting in Brattleboro but said she has accompanied Moore on other such stops. She said she shares Moore’s enthusiasm for making changes in the Act 250 process, particularly in light of new technology and extensive land-use planning that’s been done around the state.
“I think there are lots of opportunities to clarify and to make it more straightforward,” Snelling said.
At the same time, she also believes it’s time to talk more often about the environmental benefits of Act 250.
“I believe it has made a lasting difference for Vermont,” Snelling said. “It has always been about balancing economic development and preserving the environment ... Act 250 was never about stopping development.”
Review in progress
In Brattleboro, Moore told the audience that officials are engaged in an in-depth review of how the Agency of Natural Resources “can do our work better, have increased transparency, improved communication, more timely results.”
For example, she said officials have been examining how the agency participates in projects that are going through Act 250. The agency identified information-technology needs as well as “areas where there are duplicative efforts that can be avoided by having a more thoughtful process,” Moore said.
Another example, she said, is a recent study showing that 80 percent of stormwater permit applications were incomplete — so much so that the agency couldn’t even start a review. That was, “fundamentally, an indication that we weren’t providing good directions,” Moore said.
Things have changed for the better since the agency made changes in that program.
“At this point, 95 percent of the applications we receive are administratively complete,” Moore said. “It’s a huge turnaround, and it’s those sort of opportunities that we’re looking to identify.”
Moore also cited plans for a new state Environmental Notice Bulletin — “a centralized system to be able to look at permits as they’re moving through the regulatory process.” That will be tested this year and could launch in early 2018, she said.
Not all the questions at the March 2 forum were related to permitting. Bob DiSiervo of Townshend asked Moore about problems on the West River at Townshend Dam, where chronic sedimentation problems have squelched public recreation.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which operates the dam, is planning a sediment-removal project this spring. But local residents have been trying to enlist the Agency of Natural Resources’ help, as well.
“Thus far, we’ve not gotten anywhere,” DiSiervo said.
“We will look into that,” Moore replied.