Vermont Passes Legislation with Resilience in Mind

When the gavel fell on the Vermont Legislature’s 2013-2014 biennium on Saturday, May 10th, many people were pleasantly surprised by the number of accomplishments that will touch on the lives of so many Vermonters. From increasing the minimum wage to required labeling for foods containing genetically modified organisms, the Vermont House and Senate accomplished a lot in their 4 months.

Though resilience – and the long-term goal of making Vermont more resilient to climate change – was not explicitly on the agenda, the Legislature passed several laws that will move the state in that direction.

On the energy front, several organizations, including the Vermont Natural Resources Council (VNRC), worked with administration officials and legislative leadership to pass H.702, a net-metering bill, which was signed into law in April. This bill increased an existing cap on net-metered projects and set in place a process for making the net-metering program sustainable over time. This increases the state’s transition toward meeting its energy goals of 90% renewable by 2050 – which will result in greater energy independence and resilience to uncertain energy markets.

The Legislature’s work this session also included several bills that will help structure rules and direct our investments towards greater resilience. This reinforces one of the four recommendation categories in ISC’s Roadmap to Resilience – Align Rules and Investments for Stronger Communities.

The Legislature took several steps to further this goal, including passing a new shoreland protection program that, for the first time, established basic standards to protect water quality and habitat along the shores of Vermont’s 425+/- lakes and ponds that are larger than ten acres.

Though the call for greater attention to Vermont’s resilience came after Tropical Storm Irene devastated large swaths of Vermont in late August 2011, it is important to remember that Irene was the fourth natural disaster to hit the state that year, with spring flooding causing record 5670844111_484fa4b5bf_mwater levels in Lake Champlain. Flooding, whether in coastal lakes or rivers, is a natural process that becomes, in most instances, only a disaster because we have put our homes, our infrastructure and ourselves in harm’s way. Better managing shorelands to maintain the protections offered by natural vegetation, while limiting manmade encroachment into vulnerable areas, should not only protect water quality and habitat but also make us resilient to future high water events.

Lawmakers also took a step toward directing investments into our established town centers by strengthening several “designation” programs. With these improvements, we hope to see this established program become even more successful in supporting redevelopment of downtowns and village centers, new development in growth centers and new, walkable residential neighborhoods adjacent to those centers. Two bills in particular (H.809 and H.823) improve the process for municipalities to achieve designation, and improve the incentives for investing in those areas. This promotes smart growth development, which comes with the associated benefits of greater transportation options and energy efficiency – both important aspects of resilience. Also included were revisions to Act 250 criteria that reinforce the state’s historic settlement pattern of compact settlements surrounded by open countryside as well as decrease our overreliance on the single occupancy vehicle for our transportation needs.

There were several other success stories, including continued investment in our farm and forest economies through the Working Lands Enterprise Program and the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board.

And, in a modest step, lawmakers passed a bill directing the Commissioner of Forests, Parks and Recreation to identify legislative strategies tforest fragmentationo address the growing problem of forest fragmentation in the state. VNRC has long called for greater attention to the issue of forest fragmentation, and has documented the problem in detail. Whether the issue is maintaining viable wildlife populations, protecting our communities from flooding during extreme storm events, or sequestering carbon to mitigate climate change, large tracts of intact forests are at the top of the list of strategies that Vermont can pursue.

We look forward to continuing the conversation about what Vermont can do to keep our forests forests – as well as other proactive steps to make Vermont more resilient – in the next legislative session.

This post was written by Brian Shupe, Executive Director of Vermont Natural Resources Council

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