Category Archives: Land use

A Ridiculous Six-Year Crusade Ends With a Whimper

Something kind of remarkable happened last week, not that anybody in the media noticed. The Vermont Public Utility Commission dismissed an astonishingly picayune case after more than six years of kicking it around.

Case number 8585, which you’ll need to know if you want to look up the documents, pitted the Public Service Department against one David Blittersdorf, prominent renewable energy developer and bete noire of the Energy NIMBY crowd.

But the case wasn’t about a large-scale wind turbine or a field full of solar panels. Nope, it was over a meteorological tower that Blittersdorf built in 2010 on his own land in Irasburg.

The PSD opened its investigation in 2015, after local officials queried whether Blittersdorf had obtained PUC approval for the tower in the form of a certificate of public good.

The PSD took up the case, asserting that Blittersdorf violated the rules by failing to get a CPG. The concept of PUC authority over a structure completely unrelated to energy, utility operations or communications is, on its face, ridiculous. But the PSD pursued the case for six full years. Last week, finally, the PUC tossed the whole thing out.

The Case Summary, with its lengthy list of hearings, postponements, motions and delays, is like something out of Kafka. And what punishment was the PSD recommending?

A fine of $2,500.

Two thousand five hundred dollars.

I wonder how many billable hours were racked up, and how many taxpayer dollars were frittered away, over this clown show.

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State Officials Play Hot Potato With Militia Training Ground

Okay, this is a disgrace.

VPR’s Peter Hirschfeld and Nina Keck have produced a whopper of a story that, among other things, outlines the state’s complete abdication of responsibility for investigating the Slate Ridge tactical shooting range and militia training facility in West Pawlet.

VTDigger first broke the story in November, detailing how many residents live in fear of Slate Ridge and its owner, Daniel Banyai. Digger also reported that concerned residents have tried repeatedly and failed to get any kind of enforcement or investigation of Slate Ridge or Banyai, despite his threatening behavior and criminal record.

The VPR story exposes quite a bit of new ground. The most egregious revelation: State authorities have played an energetic game of pass-the-buck regarding Slate Ridge, with the result that there is no investigation at all currently in progress. This, despite the fact that Banyai is openly flouting Act 250 rules. That’s pretty cut-and-dried, right? It shouldn’t be hard to get him on that.

Well, never underestimate the creativity of bureaucrats in avoiding a difficult task.

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Mr. Milne’s Recycling Bin

Scott Milne tried to make up for his two previous statewide campaigns, which were remarkably issue-free, by releasing a lavishly illustrated and ridiculously detailed 60-point policy agenda this week.

His Tuesday announcement got lost in what turned out to be a very big news day, including Dr. Anthony Fauci’s guest appearance at Gov. Phil Scott’s Covid-19 briefing and Scott’s veto of the Global Warming Solutions Act.

I felt a little sorry for Milne at the time. But having taken a dip in his mile-wide-but-inch-deep policy pool, I decided it’s probably better for him that this stale batch of recycled ideas didn’t attract much notice. The package is dominated by conventional Republican tropes, failed Scott administration proposals, and plenty of filler to make the agenda seem more impressive than it is. You’d think a guy who’s reinvented himself as an edgy cryptocurrency investor would have some fresh ideas to contribute.

What’s even worse is that Milne completely fails to address some of our most critical challenges. There’s nothing about our raging opioid crisis, not a mention of racism, justice, policing or corrections, and barely a nod to climate change.

Since Milne’s document is searchable, we can quantify that. “Opiates” and “racism” are nowhere to be found. The word “climate” occurs precisely once in the 33-page document. And that’s a reference to Vermont’s economic climate.

After the jump: YOU get a tax incentive! And YOU get a tax incentive! EVERYBODY gets a tax incentive!!!

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Why Planning and Zoning Get Such a Bad Name

As noir as it should be.

This came out a couple weeks ago, but I didn’t want to let it pass completely by.

Earlier this month, Seven Days published a story about a hearing that happened in June about the fate of Burlington’s long-derelict Midtown Motel. Until The Curse of The Pit struck the city, this motel was arguably the biggest eyesore on a generally good-lookin’ downtown.

The Midtown’s been closed for 15 years, and every time I pass it by, I wonder how in hell this thing is still standing. In fact, to give you an idea how long this situation has lingered, Seven Days published one of its “WTF” pieces about the Midtown in 2011 — nine years ago. It was entitled “What’s the deal with Burlington’s Midtown Motel?” (To get the full effect, use your Jerry Seinfeld voice.)

Even then, the Midtown’s survival was a topic of befuddlement. And now, nearly a decade later, Burlington’s Development Review Board has rejected a proposal by the building’s owner to tear it down and create a small parking lot in its place.

A parking lot isn’t the most creative use for the property — but it’s a tremendous improvement over a blighted building that’s way beyond repair. So why the official cold shoulder?

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A state full of fetishes

FETISH, n. An object regarded with awe as being the embodiment or habitation of a potent spirit or as having magical potency. (

The notion of obsessing over, or even worshipping, an object, is often thought of as a sign of primitiveness. Here in the modern West, we know better than to believe a mere object can be imbued with magical powers or even divinity.

Funny thing is, we don’t act that way.

This is true wherever you look. Donald Trump’s wall is a fetish for him and his supporters: If we build it, we will be protected from malign influences. The American flag is a fetish; many value its security above the Constitutional rights it is supposed to represent. Heck, the Constitution itself is a fetish for those who carry it in their pockets but, when they open their mouths, reveal a lack of familiarity with its purpose. As is the Bible.

But here in Vermont, hoo boy, we’ve got ’em in spades. And far too often, our fetish fetish* sucks time and energy away from actually, you know, tackling the real problems we face.

*See what I did there?

Our latest inanimate fixation is a dying maple tree (link to article behind the Valley News‘ paywall), the last vestige of the Ascutney farm owned by Romaine Tenney. When the interstate freeways were being built, his land was in the path of I-91. Tenney repeatedly refused to sell out. When the farm was seized via eminent domain in 1964, he burned down the farmhouse, killing himself, rather than move away.

Only the maple remains. A state-contracted arborist recently concluded that the tree is beyond saving. Due to a local outcry, the state has postponed plans to cut it down and is consulting a second arborist. This isn’t the tree’s first health crisis; as the Valley News reports, “About 10 years ago, cables were installed to stabilize the tree.” Which is a lot of time and expense devoted to an organism with a lifespan that will inevitably end in death.

You know where I’m going with this.

C’mon, folks. It’s just a fuckin’ tree. Let it go. Death with dignity.

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The costs of undevelopment

Sunday’s Burlington Free Press brought us a lengthy cover story about artists in the Pine Street corridor, and their fear of potential gentrification in the area.

The Pine Street corridor is a delightful, funky mix of startups, small businesses, a few larger businesses, food enterprises, art studios, and various creative types. Hipster’s paradise.

It owes its existence to a historical quirk in zoning. As the Free Press’ Molly Walsh reports:

New residential development is prohibited along parts of Pine Street under city zoning rules going back several decades. The rules were created to preserve space for industrial and commercial uses in a 225-acre Enterprise Zone that encompasses much of Burlington’s historic manufacturing section…

Today major industry has largely moved out of the area. In its place art studios, offices and smaller-scale makers of everything from bread to beer to jewelry have sprung up along with start-ups and more established business such as Lake Champlain Chocolates.

That Enterprise Zone has had the unintended consequence of keeping rent artificially low, making it possible for this Creatives’ Colony to develop. The worm in the apple: the corridor would be an ideal place to develop more housing, which Burlington needs badly. But if the zoning were changed to allow housing, propertly values would go up. And rents. And many current tenants of the old industrial buildings would be priced out.

Of course, if you leave the zoning intact, every resident of Burlington is subsidizing the Colony through inflated costs for housing and property taxes.

So the question: is that a tradeoff worth making? If you live in Burlington, are you willing to underwrite the artists and entrepreneurs, and forego the property tax revenue and easing of housing demand?

This is a question that usually goes unasked when we consider development ideas. We see the potential costs (financial, social, environmental) of a proposal, but we don’t as easily see the costs of not developing.

Same question applies to the land formerly owned by Burlington College. The easy question is, “Do we want to preserve it as open space?’ The harder questions are, “Do we all want to subsidize that space through higher property taxes?” and “If we don’t want development there, where are we willing to allow it?” Because we can’t say “no” to everything. We can’t turn Burlington — or Vermont — into a Colonial Williamsburg, frozen in time like a beetle in amber.

Walsh interviewed quite a few Pine Street artists. Frankly, some of them seem a little whiny and entitled. One, for example, acknowledged the need for more housing but asked, “‘Why here?’ is my question. Does it have to be here?”

Well, no, it doesn’t HAVE to be there. But, given the fact that more people want to live in Burlington, it has to be somewhere. If not in the South End, if not on the former Burlington College land, then where? More suburban sprawl in Williston and Essex? (You want to see bad development? Drive a few miles north from I-89 Exit 12, past the endless and growing expanses of strip malls and subdivisions in Williston and Essex.)

If Burlington says “no” to any significant upgrade in housing stock, who does it hurt most? The low- and middle-income people who’ll be priced out of the city, and the environment of the outlying areas, where development pressure will grow.

I hope there will be a reasonable compromise on Pine Street, relaxing the strictures of the Enterprise Zone or trimming its borders. Personally, I’d like to see the Pine Street Corridor retain its character — but I’d also like to see more housing that would make use of existing infrastructure and give residents a short commute by car, bike, or bus to downtown (or Pine Street) jobs.

Overall, I’d like more attention to be paid to the hidden costs of undevelopment. It’s possible to do this intelligently, allowing desirable development while retaining our character.

Well, here’s another good idea we’ll never hear again

Earlier this week, State Auditor Doug Hoffer issued a report suggesting that the state is getting shorted on leases of public lands to ski areas. The long-term leases were negotiated in the Good Old Days, when ski areas were not much more than trails, lifts, and lodges. And they reflect that; lease payments are based on lift ticket sales.

Simpler times.

Simpler times.

Today, ski areas are ski resorts — with myriad amenities and all-season activities. Lift tickets are a small part of the whole. You could argue that that’s because of investments by private-sector operators; you could also say that none of it would exist without the public lands. The AP’s Wilson Ring put it this way:

The [Auditor’s] report says that inflation-adjusted lease payments to the state declined by 14 percent between 2003 and 2013, but property near the ski areas increased in value by about 150 percent, and meals, alcohol and room taxes have increased by between 40 percent and 61 percent.

Parker Riehle of the Vermont Ski Areas Association scrambled to justify his industry’s bargain-basement leases.

“The better that those sales are and the better that the ski rates are on state land the better that the lease payments are to the state,” Riehle said.

Is he really trying to tell us that rock-bottom leases are more lucrative for the state than reasonably-priced ones? Like the supply-side assertion that lowering taxes will increase revenue? How well does that work, Sam Brownback?

Of course, Riehle was reaching deep into the bottom of his rhetorical barrel; he also claims that the leases have led to the preservation of land and wildlife.

Yes, big expensive resports are nirvana for the ecosystem.

Hoffer doesn’t necessarily recommend trying to reopen the leases; he just wanted to provide information and raise the question.

It’s a very good question, with the state’s budget circumstances so tight that Gov. Shumlin has proposed leasing prison space to the feds (which will keep more state inmates in out-of-state for-profit prisons) and placing a three-year moratorium on the Current Use program, among many other things, to generate new revenue. His administration is effectively searching all the sofa cushions for spare change.

Nonetheless, it’s safe to assume that Hoffer’s report will be quietly shelved. Michael Snyder, Vermont’s Parks and Recreation commissioner, says the state’s hands are tied until the leases expire.

That strikes me as an awfully defeatist attitude. The state does hold the ultimate hammer — it’s our land, after all — and could force the ski resorts to reopen the deals if it wanted to.

Of course, ski resort operators (Bill Stenger, come on down!) are very well-connected people with top-shelf representation at the Statehouse and deep pockets for campaign contributions. I can just hear Our Lawmakers issuing heartfelt paeans to One Of Vermont’s Iconic Industries, a Bedrock of Our Vital Tourism Sector, and pooh-poohing any talk of Reneging On Agreements Made In Good Faith.

Too bad, ’cause if Shumlin’s budget is any indicator, we could really use the money. The resort industry has it to spare. And I’d say we deserve a fair return for the use of public property.

But naah, it ain’t happening. Better luck with your next report, Doug.

Yep, Ruth Dwyer’s still a colossal jerk

Remember Ruth Dwyer? The arch-conservative Republican gubernatorial nominee in 1998 and 2000? (Lost both times to Howard Dean.) The staunch opponent of civil unions and sourpuss leader of “Take Back Vermont”?

She’s still around, living in Thetford, and she’s at least as much of a jerk now as she was then.

Neighbors' house in foreground. "Curtain" and Dwyer's house are way in the background.

Neighbors’ house in foreground. “Curtain” and Dwyer’s house are way in the background. Photo from the Valley News.

As the Valley News reports*, Dwyer took exception when a neighboring hayfield was bought by someone who then built a house. Her calm, measured response: she built a huge fence blocking the new house from her view because the new house “offends her sensibilities.”

*The Valley News is paywalled, but if you register (for free), you can read up to five stories per month.

By “huge fence” I mean 60 feet wide and 24 feet high. Basically, a billboard in a rural residential neighborhood. She never sought a building permit.

Thetford zoning officials, meanwhile, have determined the structure — forest-green shade cloth strung across five large wooden utility poles along Sawnee Bean Road — is a “wall” and therefore out of compliance until it goes through a permitting process, which is now underway.

She claims that the structure is merely a temporary “curtain” that will come down as soon as the 68 young cedar trees she’s planted are tall enough to provide a privacy screen. (Sixty-eight trees? She’s planting a damn forest on her front lawn.) Cedars apparently grow a foot to a foot and a half per year. So with any luck that “temporary curtain” will only be there for a couple decades, more or less.  Why the fuss?

Dwyer makes a variety of arguments, ranging from the illogical to the insane. What it boils down to is, “she doesn’t want a neighbor.”

Also, she claims an absolute right to do what she likes on her property, but she doesn’t want her neighbors to exercise the same rights.

Her complaints include the aesthetics of the house. Which, as you can see from the Valley News photo, is functional and plain but not especially ugly.

She also “lamented her neighbors’ habit of mowing the lawn during the warmer months.”

“Mowing the lawn!” Well, I never! What’s next — hanging laundry or putting up a swingset?

She also professes to be bothered “by the glow of [the neighbors’] flatscreen TV.” Now, look at that photo again, and try to gauge the distance between the two houses. (Bearing in mind the “curtain” is 60 feet wide.) She’d practically need a telescope to see the glow of a TV set.

Finally, she complains of increased traffic on her rural road. As if one stinkin’ house is generating noticeable traffic.

The ironic thing, like rain on your wedding day, is that Dwyer is screeching her head off about her property rights being infringed upon by Thetford authorities, while she seems to want absolute control over what happens on neighboring property.

David Mears seems like a nice guy

DEC Commissioner David Mears was on WDEV’s Mark Johnson Show this morning, mostly talking Lake Champlain cleanup. I’ve been, shall we say, somewhat critical of the Shumlin administration’s response to Champlain’s deteriorating water quality (recent post was entitled “At this rate, Lake Champlain will be cleaned up about the time the sun goes nova and the Earth becomes a cold, dead husk,” which I guess could be taken as critical). So I wanted to hear what he had to say.

The face of earnest concern.

The face of earnest concern.

And a lot of it sounded reasonable. He does, however, have a problem: the cynicism of people like me is based on decades of neglect and delay by multiple administrations — and the bare fact that the current Powers That Be are being forced to act by the feds. So pardon us if we don’t accept bland assurances at face value.

First, he made an important correction. Many news outlets reported (and I echoed the reports) that the Shumlin administration had proposed new levies on “impervious development” and agricultural fertilizers that would raise about $1 million per year for Champlain mitigation. Which is a drop in the bucket.

Well, according to Mears, the $1 million figure was a “for example” number, and the administration actually intendes to set the levies at rates that would produce $4 million to $6 million per year. Mears describes this as “seed money.” And while it still seems rather small, it’s a lot bigger than I thought. (See note at end of this post.)

Overall, Mears made a good case for the administration’s dedication to the issue. And at one point he said, “We’re used to fighting on this issue” in a way that seemed to lay the adversarial blame on both sides.

To which I’d point out that the last two administrations, at least, have been dragged kicking and screaming into taking any action whatsoever. The Conservation Law Foundation’s lawsuit against the state, for violating the Clean Water Act regarding Lake Champlain, was first filed in 2008. And that came after years of diligent efforts to convince state government to live up to its responsibilities without an expensive court battle. So if “we’re used to fighting,” it’s not because the environmental community is feeling a bit stroppy — it’s because they’ve been consistently stonewalled by state  government. There’s been little or no cooperation, at least as far as we can tell in public.

When such obstructionism is practiced by a Republican government, we’re disappointed but not terribly surprised. When it’s done by a Democratic administration that professes to hold a strong environmental ethic, it seems like a betrayal of shared ideals. And it’s the plain truth that the current administration has slow-played the issue to a crawl, even as Champlain’s quality continues to degrade.

Mears’ presentation fell short in some key areas. When Johnson (who did an excellent job holding Mears’ feet to the fire, by the way) asked about items like Ag Secretary Chuck Ross’ decision not to mandate “best practices” for farms near Mississquoi Bay and the potential laying of a natural gas pipeline under the lake, Mears ducked the questions, saying it wasn’t his responsibility.

Well, yes. But as Johnson pointed out, Lake Champlain is his responsibility. We should expect him to be fully informed on issues that affect water quality even if they’re not primarily in his bailiwick.

I came away from the interview with a greater appreciation for the nuances of the issue, and for the administration’s interest in addressing it. But there’s a whole lot of history to overcome regarding Lake Champlain — and regarding the administration’s often-slippery relationship with the truth.

In short, telling me about your plans and dedication isn’t enough. You’ve got to show me.


Postscript. In the interview, Mears noted that he’d been in contact with reporters to correct initial reporting that proposed levies on fertilizers and “impervious development” would raise $1 million per year, rather than the administration’s target of $4 million to $6 million per year. 

Well, Mr. Commissioner, nobody ever contacted me. I realize that I don’t know everything about state government, and my ignorance sometimes results in errors. I am always open to correcting any errors in the most transparent way possible. But rarely, if ever, do I get feedback from the administration. (Generally speaking, I get more feedback from Republicans than Democrats.) Now, I’m not as high on the pecking order as your established media, but I would rather be corrected than allow a mistake to remain in place. I may be a partisan blogger, but I do have a sense of responsibility. 

Scott Milne borrowed a bucket, and he’s going to clean up Lake Champlain

The ever-constipated Campaign of Ideas has pooped out another rock-hard nugget… this time, by way of emailed press release without any live contact with reporters.

And no wonder. Even Mahatma has to realize this one’s a clunker.

It’s a two-part plan to clean up Lake Champlain.

I repeat: “two-part.”

And part one is:

Catalyze the cleanup of Lake Champlain without raising new revenue.

Yes, part one is nothing more than a restatement of the overall idea.

Step two is even worse: he wants to raid an existing fund to pay for a tiny fraction of cleanup costs:

Amend the “Vermont Housing and Conservation Trust Fund Act” to allocate the part of the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board’s funds used for conservation to cleaning up Lake Champlain.

(Bold type is Milne’s.)

I've got just the idea for you! Low mileage, runs good, new battery & tires. Don't mind the rust.

I’ve got just the plan for you! Low mileage, runs good, new battery & tires. Don’t mind the rust.

The appendix to part two is renaming VHCB as the “Vermont Housing and Lake Champlain Cleanup Trust.”

And that’s it. That’s his entire Lake Champlain cleanup “plan.”

Okay, a couple of small problems right off the bat.

This would strip VHCB of its ability to do any other conservation work: conserving farmland through the purchase of development rights; helping preserve natural areas, historic properties, wildlife habitat; purchasing land for new parks and wildlife areas; and helping provide public access to conserved land.

— It would provide, by Milne’s own estimate, a measly $7.4 million per year for a cleanup that’s estimated to cost $150 million. In the absence of a comprehensive plan, that money won’t have much impact.

Milne isn’t bothered by robbing VHCB to pay for the lake; indeed, he says there’s no need for VHCB to do any conservation:

Milne said more than half of Vermont’s land is either owned by the state or federal government, or under some sort of easement that prohibits development today.

“I say half of our state being set aside is good enough for the next five years,” according to Milne. “Let’s have this board and these dollars go towards affordable housing and cleaning up the Lake.

Hmm. He thinks there’s more than enough conserved land in Vermont. And this is the same guy who wants to suburbanize a chunk of land off I-89 in Hartford. And who has said he’d like Vermont to take a more New Hampshire-style approach to conservation and development.

Which makes me suspect that Milne wouldn’t like to see any new regulations on farmland or developed areas or wastewater treatment.

Oh, I forgot another small problem with the plan: There’s no way in Hell the feds would buy it. And we’re under pressure from the EPA to do some real substantive stuff. This ain’t it.

I think I see why he slipped this one over the transom and avoided interacting with the media. Even by Milne’s standards, this idea is a real clunker.

(Note: As of this writing, Milne hadn’t posted the plan on his website. I’m sure he’ll think of it sometime.)