Act 250, 1970

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Oral history transcriptions

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Background information

Act 250 was a historic piece of state environmental legislation passed in 1970 by the Vermont legislature to provide a mechanism to control the developers and to plan for the state’s future land use.  The law was especially remarkable for its passage by a state that had long been known for its staunch commitment to the right of individuals to use their land as they saw fit.

The act did three main things:  It established 1) criteria that had to be met by proposed real estate or housing developments of more than minimal size; 2) a review mechanism through local and statewide citizen review boards; 3) a process for formulating a statewide land use plan.  The act reflected Vermonters’ commitment to citizen action on the local level by giving power to the district citizen environmental commissions to approve, modify, or reject proposed settlements or subdivisions.  Appeals from the district level could be taken to a newly formed state regulatory agency, the environmental board.

Neil Peirce has described the district commissioner’s responsibilities:

The criteria for proposed development were quite broad.  Before a permit could be issued, the district commissions would have to be satisfied that the project would: (1) not result in undue water or air pollution; (2) have sufficient water available for its needs; (3) not cause an unreasonable soil erosion or dangerously reduce the capacity of the land to hold water;  (4) not cause unreasonable highway congestion; (5) not cause an unreasonable burden on the ability of a town to provide for schools; (6) not place an unreasonable burden on other services of local governments; and (7) “not have an undue adverse effect on the scenic or natural beauty of the area, aesthetics, historic sites or rare and irreplaceable natural areas.”

— Neil Peirce, The New England States: People, Politics, and Power in the Six New England States (New York: Norton, c1976), 256-57.

The legislature also created in 1970 a new super agency, the Environmental Conservation Agency, to work closely with the district environmental boards in providing technical expertise to make the Act 250 apparatus function effectively.

This remarkable act was passed during a period of growing environmental concern nationally.  In Vermont, support for legislation such as resulted in Act 250 had been building since the early 1960s when Vermonters began to sense that growth was threatening to destroy the state’s natural heritage and essential character.  The expansion on the interstate highway system into Vermont in that decade opened the state to an influx of affluent out of-staters who were attracted to the region because of skiing, second homes, and retirement.  Burgeoning ski complexes attracted developers who began buying up large tracts of land for construction of vacation homes.  Site planning, lot size, and sewer system adequacy were being sacrificed to quick profit.  Small rural farm communities, most of which lacked local zoning or planning control, were being overwhelmed by the rapid growth.  Property taxes soared as communities struggled to pay for increased road maintenance, police, fire protection, and garbage disposal.  Land prices were driven up: property that sold for $50 in 1960 was selling for $500 by the early 1970s, and $2,000 or more around ski areas.  The increases made it impossible for many young Vermont families to acquire a home of their own. 

Mobile home parks were springing up, encroaching on farm and wood lots, with inadequate septic and utility infrastructure and inaccessible roads, but providing the only housing option for many Vermonters. Farmers, unable to pay the escalating tax rates, were selling out, often to developers who then turned more farmland into subdivisions.  Open land and wildlife habitats were shrinking rapidly in some parts of Vermont, and fragile mountain soil structure faced destruction.

Conservative Republican Governor Dean Davis responded to the growing concern by establishing a state commission on environmental control for the purpose of examining abuses in the vacation home industry.  From its deliberations emerged the basic outline of the “Act 250” legislation.  Although vigorously opposed by realtors and developers, the act passed two legislative houses by large margins with bipartisan support, and Governor Davis signed it into law.

The act was tightened in 1973 and several times thereafter to protect additional specific areas from subdivision development, close loopholes, redefine the scope, and modify procedures of the act. 

In the years since its passage, development has continued in Vermont and Act 250 has been changed to adapt to new conditions and demands on the economy and environment.  Writing in 2013, legal historian Paul Gillies observed:

Act 250 is both a legal and political process. It is an idea that became a law that grew into an institution, with devoted people to administer it, precedents and case histories, and rules. . . . Certainly the law has improved the quality of development in Vermont. . . . More than 23,000 permits later, Act 250 survives, somewhat battered, peppered with holes, but very much together, disciplined, functioning.

— Paul S. Gillies, “The Evolution of Act 250: From Birth to Middle Age,” in Gillies, Uncommon Law, Ancient Roads, and Other Ruminations on Vermont Legal History (Barre and Montpelier, VT, Vermont Historical Society, 2013), 303.

Despite loopholes in the law, its occasional uneven application at the district board level, and numerous amendments since 1970, Act 250 continues to stand as one of the most far-reaching act of environment legislation passed by any state.

— Gene Sessions (1987, revised 2021)

Further Reading

Cindy Corbett Argentine, Vermont Act 250 Handbook (Putney, VT: Putney Press, 1993, 1998, 2008).

Paul S. Gillies, “The Evolution of Act 250: From Birth to Middle Age,” in Gillies, Uncommon Law, Ancient Roads, and Other Ruminations on Vermont Legal History (Barre and Montpelier, VT, Vermont Historical Society, 2013), 280-303.

Leonard U. Wilson, “Land Use Planning and Environmental Protection,” in Michael Sherman, ed. Vermont State Government since 1965 (Burlington, VT: Center for Research on Vermont, University of Vermont, The Snelling Center for Government, 1999), 453-466, and elsewhere in the same volume.

Michael Sherman, Gene Sessions, and P. Jeffrey Potash, Freedom and Unity: A History of Vermont (Barre, VT: Vermont Historical Society, 2004), 609-616.

Citation for this page

Woodsmoke Productions and Vermont Historical Society, “Act 250,” The Green Mountain Chronicles radio broadcast and background information, original broadcast 1988-89.   https://sitemaps.vermonthistory.org/act-250-1970

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