Panel questions agriculture Act 250 exemption

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A legislative panel wants to hear the agriculture agency's case for why farmers should be exempt from environmental enforcement under Vermont's land use law.

The Act 250 committee, which met Nov. 15, is tasked with proposing fixes to the state's land use law that will bring 50-year-old regulations up to speed with new environmental pressures.

At the next meeting to be held next month, the committee will ask the Agency of Agriculture to justify land use exemptions for farms.

Rep. Amy Sheldon, D-East Middlebury, the chair of the Act 250 panel, said lawmakers are required to look into the agricultural exemption, but public dismay over the closure of Lake Carmi has given the matter more urgency.

Toxic blue-green algae covered Lake Carmi for months this year. The cyanobacterial blooms were largely caused by manure and commercial fertilizer runoff from nearby dairy farms.

The Legislature created the Act 250 panel earlier this year as part of Act 47. The committee must report back to the full Legislature by December 2018 with suggested improvements to the land use laws.

It's not clear why agriculture was exempted from the act's purview in the first place, said Sen. Brian Campion, D-Bennington, a member of the committee. Farms are also exempt from most municipal zoning laws as well, Campion said.

"We really need to pull this apart, because we don't want to keep this exemption if in some ways it's harming the environment," Campion said.

Anson Tebbetts, secretary of the Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets, said his agency is "just starting to research" the Act 250 issue.

Tebbetts could not be reached for additional comment and said he would be "happy to discuss when we finish our work." He said the agency has hired Scott Waterman, who previously served as the spokesman for the Vermont State Police, to handle communications. Waterman and Tebbetts both formerly worked for WCAX.

Campion has asked Tebbetts to answer questions about the exemption at the next Act 250 meeting, to be held Dec. 13 at the Statehouse.

The Commission on Act 250 will look at a range of new environmental issues affecting land use and regulation in Vermont.

An important example is climate change, Sheldon said. "We weren't thinking about that 50 years ago," she said. "We want to think about that now."

The commission will also consider whether to bring wind turbines under the jurisdiction of Act 250, Sheldon said. Opponents of wind power have asked lawmakers to consider using the land use law to vet large scale turbine projects.

A sustained public outreach effort on changes to Act 250 will be conducted over the summer and fall of 2018, she said.

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