Tag Archives: Act 250

Want more development? Elect Phil Scott

There’s been a lot of talk about the tax incentives and budgetary targets in Phil Scott’s newly released economic plan. There’s been less coverage of parts of the plan that might actually have the greatest impact: a strongly pro-business orientation in how state government operates.

Regarding tax changes and budget cuts, Scott would have to work with large — possibly veto-proof — Democratic majorities in the Legislature. But a lot of the pro-business orientation is a matter of executive authority. “Governor Scott” could do a lot to make his administration business-friendly without any legislative input.

And let there be no doubt: Phil Scott would be a very business-friendly Governor. So much so, that it calls into question his image of political moderation.

There’s one item that leaped off the page when I was reading his economic plan. He foresees a dramatic re-orientation in the Act 250 permitting process. First, he would establish a 90-day time limit for major permitting applications, and a four-week limit for “minor licensing and permitting.”

I don’t know how he plans to enforce the time limits. And given his vagueness in other areas, I imagine he doesn’t know either.

And then there’s the second thing, which could be even bigger. He wants “Act 250 permit specialsts to serve as pro-growth guides.”

Let that sink in for a moment.

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Wait, was that Vermont or Texas?

Imagine, if you will, a high-profile statewide campaign launch held in the ballroom of a semi-swanky hotel.

In addition to the usual banners, balloons, etc., the room also contains four gas-powered vehicles (or representations thereof): a vintage tractor, a miniature race car and bulldozer, and a full-sized stock car. The candidate himself is a stock car driver; the car is decked out as a rolling campaign billboard; and his logo features a checkered flag. All that’s missing is a model of an oil derrick.

The event occurs in late afternoon. For most of the day, the same room had hosted the annual meeting of the state’s biggest construction trade association. The candidate is a prominent member of the group.

Now tell me: what kind of environmental policy would you expect from this candidate?

I’m speaking, as you already know, of putative moderate Phil Scott. The trade group? The Associated General Contractors of Vermont. (You don’t often see so many portly, pasty-faced men in one place. It was like hippos at the watering hole, except with suits and ties.)

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Phil Scott wants your money

Now that the July 15 campaign finance reporting deadline is past, Lt. Gov. Phil Scott has begun to actively fundraise. He’s sent out a missive to “Friends and Supporters” asking for money. (And since the next reporting deadline isn’t until March 2016, for God’s sake, it’ll be the better part of a year before we find out how he’s doing. Way to fly under the radar, Phil.)

Not clear exactly what he wants money FOR, because he’s not yet ready to decide. Or so he says.

He does, however, inch noticeably closer to the gubernatorial starting line: “… we have more work to do, and I am preparing to step up and lead.” (bold print is his.) And later on, he writes:

“Strong teams get the best results. With the challenges we face right now in Vermont, teamwork is more important than ever and I believe I can lead a team that can make these things happen.”

Oooooohhh!

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Is it just me, or does Scott Milne owe a lot of money?

Kudos to Scott Milne, who voluntarily released two years’ worth of tax returns and other personal financial information. That’s more than Governor Shumlin released, and it’s the level of disclosure required of members of Congress.

His financials did raise a niggling question in my mind, though.

Milne lists several assets, the largest of which are the $2,000,000 value of Milne Travel and $1,699,750 representing a 50% share in B&M Realty, the firm he co-owns with David Boies III.

Then there are the liabilities: $1.642 million. The largest is a $950,000 “promissory note,” otherwise not described. Who holds the note? What’s it for? What are the terms of repayment?

There are also three mortgages totaling $1.38 million; Milne is responsible for half of those, or $680,000. Since he “owns” 50% of those mortgages, and he owns 50% of B&M Realty, I’m going out on a limb and guessing that the mortgages arise from B&M investments.

Let us pray.

Let us pray.

It boils down to a healthy net worth of $2.641 million, but still. We’re talking about a guy whose primary income is his $118,000 salary from Milne Travel. Now, I don’t play in these financial leagues, but it seems to me that Milne is carrying a lot of debt.

And his positive net worth depends almost entirely on the valuation of his two corporate interests — Milne Travel and B&M Realty. Is the family business really worth $2,000,000? Is B&M really worth $3.4 million? I don’t know, but I’d have to guess that corporate valuations are somewhat fluid.

Which brings me to my underlying question. How much of Milne’s finances — the black ink and the red — are tied up in the proposed Quechee Highlands mixed-use development planned for a 168-acre parcel just off I-89 at Exit 1 in Hartford?

I assume that Milne’s 50% mortgage obligations, totaling $680,000, are for Highlands-related land purchases. This is currently undeveloped land; if the B&M project is built, it could lead to a West Lebanon, New Hampshire style building boom in that area — making Milne’s stake a whole lot more valuable.

On the other hand, if it doesn’t get built, Boies and Milne will be stuck with the debt load on those 168 acres.

And the project is in serious trouble, having been denied an Act 250 permit by the regional environmental commission, and being noncompliant with the town of Hartford’s current development plan for the area. B&M has appealed the environmental commission’s ruling, and Milne has spoken loudly about what he sees as the anti-business bias and excessive regulatory power of the regional commissions.

Which makes me wonder how he’d handle Act 250 if elected Governor, but that’s another issue. The question raised by Milne’s financials is, how much risk has he taken on here?

In the past, he has semi-jokingly said that B&M is basically Boies’ money and Milne’s shoe leather. Well, to judge by his personal assets and liabilities, Scott Milne has a lot more riding on Quechee Highlands than his footwear. If he takes office and B&M’s appeal is still in process — which it almost certainly will be — then how would he separate policy from personal interest? Especially with the level of financial exposure he seems to have?

In releasing his financials, Milne criticized Governor Shumlin for offering too little information. And clearly, we have more numbers from Milne. But do we know what those numbers mean?

It may be perfectly obvious to someone who operates on that level, and it may be completely innocuous. But to a humble blogger, this looks like high stakes. And it’s all riding on a regulatory decision from the state of Vermont.

When public policy becomes personal

Let’s look at the two guys likely to headline the Republican ticket, such as it is, in Vermont this year: gubernatorial candidate Scott Milne, and incumbent Lieutenant Governor Phil Scott. Both are men of moderate reputation and widely seen as “nice guys.” Both have shown a disinclination to take hard-and-fast political stances.

But for each of them, there’s one exception to the general tone of moderation. Milne and Scott have each spoken loudly and strongly on one issue respectively. For each, it’s an issue that has left the realm of abstract policy and directly impacted their own fortunes. In the case of our Lieutenant Governor, it’s public campaign financing; for Milne, it’s the approval process for new developments, most especially Act 250.

It’s funny how a personal stake can turn a moderate into a firebrand. But it does call into question their ability to govern dispassionately. One of the most important things I want to know about candidates is this: Can they make decisions based on the public good, even if they’re going against their own personal interest? Can they set their interests aside?

Both top Republicans are in danger of failing that test.

As for Scott, after years of building a politiical career on being inoffensive and avoiding the tough call, he has become a late-blooming opponent of public campaign financing. When he was a state Senator, Scott wasn’t particularly against the idea, and he had his chances. And during his tenure as Lieutenant Governor, he’d never spoken out about it.

Until now, when a publicly-financed candidate threatens to give him a real race. Now he’s decided that public financing is an unfair burden on taxpayers, forcing them to effectively support a candidate they may personally oppose. Which ignores the whole social-good function of publicly financing ANYTHING — roads, welfare, education, police, military. Every one of us pays taxes to support something that we personally would not choose to spend money on. Public financing is a drop in that particular bucket.

As for Milne, he’s hot and bothered over the development approval process because of his big personal stake in Quechee Highlands, a proposed housing/retail project slated for a large parcel near Exit 1 of I-89. (This story was broken earlier this week by my colleague BP at Green Mountain Daily.) How hot and bothered? In an essay published last August in the Valley News, his opening salvo was:

All who care about Vermont’s future, fairness in government and how communities settle disputes should pay heed to what is happening a few miles from the Connecticut River at Quechee Highlands.

Wow. That’s putting it pretty strongly. “Vermont’s future” depends on Milne getting his way on this project. Lacking in perspective much?

He goes on to slam the regional planning commission for denying an Act 250 permit for the project. In the process, he reveals substantial ignorance about the mission and workings of those commissions. Most notably, he wrote that the commissions’ purpose “should be to help promote development that creates a foundation for economic health.”

Er, Scott. Hate to break it to you, but those Act 250 bodies are meant to balance development with conservation, not to promote development. And your little project, I have to say, would be built in an area with precious little road infrastructure. The corridor between Exit 1 and Woodstock is already a mess, and the vicinity of Exit 1 is especially bad. The original proposal was for an entirely retail project, which would have been a traffic nightmare. Milne and co. later revised it to mixed-use, residential plus “less than 37 percent retail.” Which is still quite a lot of retail in a 168-acre development. (The retail is clearly aimed at cashing in on the proximity to I-89. The site is less desirable for housing because of freeway noise.)

At the time, one of the pillars of Milne’s argument was that while the regional board had said “no,” the town of Hartford was in favor of the project. And he asserted that the town’s view should have greater weight.

Since then, Hartford has changed its tune. In May, the Hartford Selectboard amended its master plan to bring it into compliance with the regional commission’s plan. Before the Selectboard’s vote, Milne warned that QH would be “dead” if the changes were adopted. He’s already pursuing appeal of the regional commission’s ruling; he’s now threatening to take Hartford to court as well:

“I’m going to try to figure out if I’m going to do anything, and if I do, it’s probably going to involve more lawyers, and it’s just going to continue to brand Vermont as a bad place to do business,” said Milne.

Sheesh. Rejection of Milne’s project will “brand Vermont as a bad place to do business”? Mr. Milne seems to have an awfully… shall we say, expansive… view of himself and the importance of his project.

And it wasn’t long after the Selectboard action that Milne began publicly mulling a run for Governor, having previously given no hint of ever desiring a political career.

Now, I don’t think Scott Milne wants to be Governor so he can save Quechee Highlands. But it’s clear from his own statements that he has very strong pro-development views. And if he were to become Governor, he’d clearly push for substantial changes in the Act 250 process that would shift its focus from conservation to, in his own words, “help promote development.”

That’s a pretty radical take on Act 250, is it not? It’s looking like Milne is not that much of a moderate, at least on this very crucial issue. It calls into question his ability to dispassionately consider issues in which he has a personal interest. It also calls into question the entire foundation of his campaign, which portrays him as a centrist who can build bridges and work with the Democrats.