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First ever rural omnibus bill introduced in Vermont House

View of Vermont forests and hills
Pat Bradley
View of Vermont forests and hills

A tri-partisan group of Vermont state House representatives known as the Rural Caucus has introduced the first rural omnibus bill.

The Rural Economic Development Working Group, or Rural Caucus, was formed in 2004 to focus on legislation that it says should be enacted, amended or repealed in order to grow and sustain the economies of the smallest towns in the state.

The Rural Economic Development, or rural omnibus, billwas introduced in the Vermont House last week. Lyndon Republican Martha Feltus says it is the result of testimony gathered since last summer and focuses on Vermont’s forest economy.

“I support this effort as a way to explore ways that we can stabilize and strengthen the economic development in our rural areas, which is obviously a very large part of the state. These areas are characterized by a dependence on very small employers and entrepreneurs. We have very local commercial networks and we have a distribution of social services which is done on a very local level,” explains Feltus. “Parts of this legislation I think will capitalize on the positive aspects of those parts of the rural areas and I think ultimately it will help strengthen our entire state by making the rural areas stronger.”

Various co-sponsors described segments of the bill. One element creates a Forest Future Program. Craftsbury Democrat Katherine Sims explained it is modeled after farm-to-plate programs.

“It would work to support existing and potential forest-based businesses that are working to sustainably manage Vermont’s forest lands. The farm-to-plate plan provides a road map for our agriculture sector and its time that we develop an equivalent for the forest sector,” says Sims. “So the Forest Future Program will bring together key stakeholders to create an action plan that identifies infrastructure investments and public policy recommendations to increase economic development, sustainably manage our wood resources and develop the workforce for the future of our forests. And it’s also advancing one of the key recommendations in the Vermont Climate Action Plan.”

Waterville Democrat Lucy Rogers said several clauses in the bill attempt to address the forest industry sector’s challenges with the state’s land use development law.

“We heard repeatedly about the time and expense of navigating Act 250 and the associated permits as a major barrier for forest economy businesses.”

Wolcott Democrat Daniel Noyes noted that affordable housing is also addressed in the omnibus bill.

“Access to affordable housing in rural communities starts with investments in water and wastewater infrastructure. We also need to encourage developers to invest in housing for families and older Vermonters,” Noyes says. “These parts of the proposal is a starting point for where the legislature can look at removing permitting barriers in village centers, downtowns and neighborhoods where the towns have had the discussions as to where and what type of development they want to see.”

The bill seeks to expand legislative work on a state energy management plan. Dover Independent Laura Sibilia says it does that by helping municipalities with thermal fuel switching.

“Vermont municipalities own and maintain more than 7,000 old buildings that are really expensive to heat and have a large carbon footprint. We think that in order to meet our climate goals and to protect the budgets in our rural communities we must complement our weatherization efforts with support for municipalities to thermal fuel switch, including modern wood heat,” Sibilia continues, “So this bill expands existing programs and then connects both the state level program with new capacity at the regional level.”

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