The long and short of legislating

Mike Yantachka

Hundreds of bills are introduced in the Vermont House each year.  Some are very long bills that create new laws or make major modifications to existing law.  A major rewrite of the liquor control laws that were first enacted in 1934 was recently undertaken by the General, Housing & Military Affairs Committee. All of the changes were technical, including removal of outdated regulations and bringing others into compliance with current practices and relevant laws. This 179-page bill took over two hours to summarize on the House floor.  Other than an amendment to legalize “happy hours,” which was defeated on a close vote because it would require more testimony, there was little controversy and the bill was passed on a voice vote.  The committee indicated it would revisit the popular “happy hours” as a separate bill.

On the flip side of bill complexity, the Energy & Technology Committee considered a one-page bill, H.50, that would have simply extended a sunset clause on a section of law regarding telecommunications from July of this year to July of 2020, but generated a great deal of controversy. This provision, known as Section 248a, provides an expedited process for getting a Certificate of  Public Good (CPG) from the Public Service Board (PSB) for siting of telecommunication equipment such as antennae, wifi transmitters, and cell towers.  Telecom facility siting would then have to go through either Act 250 permitting when applicable, local zoning, or both. Cell phone and internet access have been seen as essential for economic development, safety, education, health care, and consumer service. Section 248a has been a key factor in developing this infrastructure since the Douglas administration. The House Energy and Technology Committee took many weeks of testimony from all the stakeholders, including the PSB, the Department of Public Service, telecom providers, and municipalities and Regional Planning Commissions.

The extension of the sunset clause had been passed three times since 2007. Over this time several cases of cell tower siting have been contentious, pitting local zoning and residents against developers. Almost all of these had occurred more than a year ago.  As a result of these issues coming to light, the legislature made modifications to 248a in 2015 which requires the PSB to give “substantial deference” to local plans, regulations and recommendations unless there is “good cause” to find otherwise.  Substantial deference means that the plans and recommendations of municipal bodies are presumed correct, valid, and reasonable. The modifications also included strong language for co-locating new equipment on existing structures whenever possible. These modifications to 248a took effect on July 1, 2016, a mere eight months ago. After taking weeks of testimony and concluding that the concerns of the towns had been addressed in previous legislation, the committee decided to make 248a permanent by repealing the sunset clause.

As H.50 was brought to the floor for consideration by the Vermont House, the Vermont League of Cities and Towns (VLCT) sent a letter of opposition to repealing the sunset clause.  This generated a lot of emails to legislators from municipal officials, and the Energy & Technology Committee decided to pull the bill back.  We subsequently had more discussion with VLCT as well as other affected parties and restored the language extending the sunset for three years and added language to require the CPG applicants to include in the 60-day preapplication notice a list of existing options available to the municipalities, including reference to the substantial deference clause. This amendment to H.50 was satisfactory to VLCT as well as to the telecom providers, and the bill was once again voted out of committee for consideration by the full House and is expected to pass.  The takeaway is that even the simplest bill can generate a lot of work and turmoil.

As always, I invite you to let me know your concerns and opinions. I can be reached by phone (802-233-5238) or by email (myantachka.dfa@gmail.com), and you can find this article and past articles at my website: www.MikeYantachka.com.

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