Vermont Real Estate Development and Act 250 – The Basics

In the mid to late 1960’s two new interstate highways, I-89 and I-91, opened and became operational in the state of Vermont, bringing with them much easier access to Vermont for out-of-state visitors, especially those from Boston and New York. This created a concern amongst the residents and legislature of Vermont that land over-development, or sprawl, would increase significantly and could have a negative impact on the state’s legendary pristine mountain environment as well as the state’s economy. The increased visitor and automobile traffic led many to believe that everything from the views and open spaces to the wetlands, wildlife habitats and general quality of life could be affected by such a major change. Most important for this article, though, was the concern of too much real estate development.

Early in the 1970’s Vermont passed Act 250, the state’s first real law that put strict regulations on land use development. Speaking generally, anyone looking to develop land of more than ten acres, of more than ten total units or above 2,500 feet in elevation were now subject to a rigorous review process by the state, to ensure that the development would not have a negative impact on local resources, economies and quality of life. One of the state’s nine District Environmental Commissions now scrutinize a project to determine if it is acceptable based on the so-called “ten criteria” of Act 250.

You can find a complete list of the Act 250 ten criteria by simply searching the law on the internet, but most of the criteria deal with air and water pollution. The project cannot cause undue pollution to the air or water, including not over-burdening the local water supply, not affecting the soil’s ability to properly retain water in the community, and not affecting the local wetlands, shore lands, rivers, streams and lakes. The development must not be likely to cause congestion issues on the local roads and highways and it must not place too large of a stress on the local municipality, especially with regards to the municipality’s school systems. Finally, aesthetics are considered – the scenery, natural areas, points of interest and local wildlife habitats must not face a significant danger. Each project is reviewed for its adherence to Act 250 by the Commission and a developer may appeal a negative ruling to the Vermont Environmental Board.

Large scale projects mostly have a tough time getting approval under the Act, but ski resorts (a major attraction in the state) often slip through the review process more easily. For example, in 2001, Stratton Mountain, a large-scale ski resort proposed a massive expansion on 2,000+ acres that included more than 1,200 housing units, restaurants, shops, ski lifts and more. Although the project faced much opposition from the neighboring communities, local residents and non-profit environmental concerns, the board ultimately approved the project under the rationale that most of the expansion would only attract seasonal visitors and would not function year-round. This incredible interpretation of the project allowed it to pass muster of the Commission and the development went ahead, mostly as planned.

If you are looking to develop property in the state of Vermont, you definitely need to be cognizant of Act 250 before you get too far along, as the strict requirements and criteria could ultimately leave you with a piece of land that can’t be developed as you hoped. Save time and money by researching this carefully and performing your due diligence. Vermont is not like most states when it comes to sprawl – keeping it beautiful and pristine is a top priority here!