Rutland Herald Editorial

Real choices

April 27, 2002

A federal appeals court has upheld the Act 250 ruling limiting the number of trucks that OMYA Inc. is allowed to send each day between its marble quarry in Middlebury and its processing plant in Florence.

The OMYA decision had previously survived challenges before the state Environmental Board, the Vermont Supreme Court, and U.S. District Court. The outcome of the case represents the kind of familiar and troubling impasse that appears to pit economic development against environmental protection.

There have been other impasses equally as troubling. When the state Water Resources Board rejected a stormwater permit for a Lowe’s home centers store in Chittenden County, it appeared that the need to limit pollution might throttle economic growth. Vermonters began to wonder if they could afford many more environmental victories.

There is another way to look at this kind of impasse. Neither the OMYA case nor the Lowe’s case ought to be seen as an environmental victory. It is true that environmental values have been upheld by means of the regulatory process. The problem is that in both cases we have been presented with two bad choices: either increase environmental harm or hurt business. The solution is to avoid having to make a bad choice by finding our way to a good choice.

In the OMYA case, the prospect of doubling the load of traffic OMYA was sending through Brandon raised alarms about the aesthetic degradation of a historic village. Unfortunately, the limits placed on OMYA’s trucking robbed Vermont of valuable economic growth. To avoid such an impasse, Vermont must ensure its infrastructure is adequate. In the case of Brandon, forward-thinking transportation policy would have already headed in the direction of either a Route 7 bypass or a suitable rail connection.

Unless we give ourselves good choices, we will be left with bad ones. That’s why regulatory decisions like that in the OMYA case are best viewed as a sort of wake-up call for those in positions of responsibility.

In the Lowe’s case, the regulatory decision alerted us to the fact that the Agency of Natural Resources had failed adequately to address the problem of stormwater runoff. The agency had a mandate throughout the 1990s to make plans for improving water quality in watersheds throughout the state. But even the agency secretary, Scott Johnstone, admits the agency directed its resources to other tasks during that time. Since the Lowe’s decision, the agency has shifted its focus so that pollution problems can be addressed before development proposals such as the Lowe’s store create another impasse.

It is little comfort to OMYA that the state, belatedly, has begun to look at how to alleviate congestion traffic on Route 7. But it would give Vermonters little comfort if the social and environmental values embodied in the state’s land use laws were jettisoned as inconvenient. The impasses that occur ought to signal to us that we have failed to look ahead, and those failures ought to wake us to the need to create better choices for ourselves as a way to avoid the troubling conflict between the economy and the environment.