Don Turner: Vermont has housing supply problem driven by overly burdensome regulatory process

This commentary is by Don Turner, a former Republican state representative from Milton, former House minority leader, current Milton town manager and longtime member of the Milton Fire and Rescue departments. He was a candidate for lieutenant governor in 2018.

Imagine, for a moment, you are a developer living in Phoenix, Arizona.

Let’s say you want to build a complex with 100 rental apartment units to accommodate the city’s growing workforce, targeted to those making less than the area’s median income.

So, you draw up some plans, walk into the permit office, walk out with a permit in-hand in just a matter of hours, and begin construction the very next week.

From a developer’s standpoint, it seems almost too good to be true. But it isn’t — Phoenix has recently been termed a “24 hour city(link is external)” because you can literally get a building permit in less than 24 hours.

Lou Varricchio/TNR

Don Turner

Now, let’s say you are a developer looking to build the same size housing building, with the same number of units, targeted to those below the area median income — but this time, you’re in Brandon, Vermont.

You start off the same way, drawing up plans with your architect. Then, you have to submit a permit application with the zoning office. The local development review board (DRB) holds several hearings over the next three months. Eventually, despite opposition from neighbors concerned about the impact of the project on the “character of the area”, you receive permit approval.

By the way, because your proposed development is located 500 feet from the boundary of Brandon’s designated downtown limits, you don’t qualify for priority housing project status. So, you have to file an Act 250 permit as well.

The DRB permit is immediately appealed by an opponent who lives 3 miles away, but who simply doesn’t like the project. You file an expedited motion to dismiss, but still have to hire an attorney. Four months later, the court finally grants your motion.

But back on the Act 250 side, things aren’t looking good. First, a full month passes by before you even hear back from the Act 250 district commission. Eventually, the district commission calls for a site visit and two public hearings. Three months after applying for the permit, you eventually are granted approval — but not before you are appealed again by another opponent.

Now, the court backlog is even greater. So, you have to wait a year before the case is heard by the Environmental Court. Eventually, it is decided in your favor. You are finally ready to start construction — with hundreds of thousands of dollars spent and well over a year having passed since applying — until you hear the Environmental Court’s decision has been appealed to the Vermont Supreme Court.

I could go on, but this is the reality that many developers face in Vermont when looking to build new units of affordable housing. And with all the costs, headaches, and uncertainty, most developers wind up abandoning the process long before they even reach the final stages.

Here’s the scary thing: none of this is an exaggeration. Vermont’s permitting process is an absolute nightmare(link is external). Many permits still take months(link is external) before they are processed. And the average waiting time — meaning many wait longer — for an Environmental Court appeal of an Act 250 permit is 375 days(link is external).

All this is to say Vermont doesn’t have a housing “demand” problem. We’ve had high demand for housing for years, and while COVID-19 caused demand to increase it is still nothing that we are unfamiliar with. We have a housing “supply” problem, driven by an overly burdensome regulatory process that creates uncertainty, raises costs, and delays and deters projects from becoming a reality.

This isn’t to say the solution is the other extreme, such as a 24-hour city model like Phoenix. But there has to be a middle ground between the disappointing place we find ourselves in and a more realistic, predictable, and less cumbersome process.

Thankfully, there are a few commonsense steps we can take to get us there. Just a handful of ideas include: expanding priority housing projects; expediting review in depressed areas; increasing tax exemptions for  construction materials related to certain projects; adding resources to the environmental court; and re-structuring appeal routes to add more certainty to the process.

We’ve spent years throwing more money at the problem with increased affordable housing tax incentives, an expanded down payment assistance program, and boosted downtown and village center tax credits. These are very important steps towards a fix; in fact, I voted for these priorities when I was in the Legislature. But if we continue to view our affordable housing challenges as only a demand-side problem, we’re going to keep falling short.

If we can make a concerted effort to increase the supply of housing through common-sense regulatory relief, we can lower housing costs without breaking the bank.

It’s long past time we take the first step toward making Vermont a housing destination — rather than continuing to accept the failed status quo.

Images courtesy of Flickr/401kcalculator.org and Lou Varricchio/TNR
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10 thoughts on “Don Turner: Vermont has housing supply problem driven by overly burdensome regulatory process

  1. You forget one of the largest costs in getting permits that take up to a year…Engineers and lawyers. Both can charge up to a couple hundred $, or more, per hour and builders are forced to do reams of paperwork, analysis, studies, to give to approving bodies.. Then there is cost of land, way up.. Then parking lots! New rules add a ton of money costs into storm water runoff stuff. Then there are tons of new rules for ADA compliance….new rules come every year for state inspectors…wiring, plumbing , roof, hallways, stairs ADA….even elevators needed…efficiency toilets, CO-2 detactors, wired smoke alarms……maybe low flush toilet…the list goes on and on. After ALL these excess costs, then ALL construction costs have zoomed & lumber. When all done the STATE then appraises the apartment building as COMMERCIAL. Commercial property taxes are MICH HIGHER than “residential” taxes. Even those residents in apts may not have much money? THE STATE TAXES THEM AT COMMERCIAL RATES – because property taxes are a huge part of ALL RENT CHARGED! Landlords pay $$$$ for efficient energy, often mandated….but elec costs and heat costs go way UP because of Green energy mandates.. So after ALL this, all the liberals compalin that landlords are greedy and evil money suckers? Check the FACTS first.

  2. Really sick of builders like Don Turner telling us he cannot make a penny building……………then change the laws that you all implemented while in state government.

    • Ms. Henning,
      Just because you are in the legislature does not mean that you are responsible for all the laws that pass and Don Turner deserves credit for providing principled opposition while in leadership of the minority.

      Right now we have a super-majority of Democrats and Progressives in the Senate and close to that in the House. The most important thing that can be done to change things is to elect more Republicans and Independents who are willing to buck the Democratic leadership and sustain vetos from Governor Scott. This would change the whole tenor of what is happening, halt the more extreme measures currently being passed, and potentially allow for real progress.

      Hopefully more people will be willing to take up this tough but winnable effort, as seen in Grand Ise where Mitz Johnson lost her seat in the last election.

    • Hi Ms. Henning: Please be specific – kindly tell us exactly what the former Senator did to achieve the outcome you claim. Pls include verifiable sources if possible – thanks! 😀

    • Mr. Turner is the Milton Town Manager and a former State Rep. Not sure he’s a builder, but maybe nights and weekends? Turner’s commentary is both accurate and disturbing. Permits, challenges and appeals all add to the cost of construction, they even affect the property tax or rent you pay on your home, whether you’ve been there a month or 50 years. Regulation does the same. If you read carefully, Mr Turner explains his views that Vermont faces a “housing supply problem” not a “demand problem” and he’s right. But his opinion is probably based on his experience as a town manager, not as a builder. Mr Turner has and continues to try to change some of the restrictive nonsense put into law in Vermont, but it’s an uphill battle against a majority legislature of Democrats and Progressives, hell bent on controlling every aspect of your life. Please help all of us by thinking carefully about the candidates you vote for next year.

  3. Don,

    If RE folks want to have heat pumps in every Vermont house/apartment/condo, etc., to provide 100% of SPACE HEATING, then those abodes HAVE to be highly sealed and highly insulated.
    See Appendix in URL
    https://www.windtaskforce.org/profiles/blogs/electric-bus-systems-likely-not-cost-effective-in-vermont-at

    At present, Vermont heat pumps displace only 27.6% of heat required for space heating, on average, per VT-DPS survey report.

    If you want to displace 100%, you need at least 2 or 3 heat pumps (based on my own experience), plus, they would operate very INEFFICIENTLY, at low temperatures, exactly the same time the abode would need the MOST HEAT!!!

    Only 1 to 1.5% of Vermont abodes are highly sealed, highly insulated, i.e., suitable for heat pumps.

    Highly Sealed, Highly Insulated House

    In 2008, Transformations Inc., Townsend, MA, was chosen among six builders to participate in the state’s investor-owned utilities Zero Energy Challenge, a competition to encourage builders to plan and develop a home with a HERS Index below 35 before December 2009.

    Carter Scott, President of Transformations, Inc. brought together a team of design and energy experts to not only meet the challenge, but to figure out how to get all the way to zero, while still building an affordable, new house. The team designed a three-bedroom 1,232-sq ft house, called the “Needham,” which has a “- 4” HERS rating, i.e., the house produces more energy than it is using. Sales price: $195,200 in 2009

    Major Design Features:

    Roof (R75): 5 inches of high-density polyurethane foam, HDF, and 13 inches of high-density cellulose all along the slope of the second-floor roof rafters; 2 x 12s and a 2 x 4s held off by 3 inches for a thermal break separation
    Walls (R49): 2 x 4 outside wall; added a second 2 x 4 wall for a total depth of 12 inches; filled 3 inches with HDF and 9 inches with cellulose
    Basement Ceiling: 3 inches of HDF and a layer of R-30 fiberglass batts
    Windows: Paradigm triple-pane model with Low-E and krypton gas
    Heating/Cooling: Two Mitsubishi Mr. Slim mini-split, ductless, ASHPs
    Ventilation: Lifebreath 155 ECM Energy Recovery Ventilator
    Leakage: About 175 cfm at 50 pascal, per blower door test (or 284 cfm for a 2000 sq ft house. See table 8)
    Solar: Evergreen Solar’s 30 Spruce Line 190-watt PV panels to create a 6.4-kW system;
    Hot Water: SunDrum Solar’s DHW heating system
    Heat Loss: About 10,500 Btu/h, at 70F indoor, 6F outdoor (or 2000/1232 x 75 delta T/64 delta T x 10500 = 19,975 Btu/h for a 2000 sq ft house, at 65F indoor and -10F outdoor, in Vermont)

    Weatherizing Housing Units Reduces Minimal CO2 at High Cost

    In 2017, about 2012 housing units were weatherized, for about $20 million, about $10,000/unit.
    CO2 reduction about 6 million lb/y, or 2716 Mt/y.

    Assuming the older houses would last another 30 years, the CO2 reduction cost would be $19.75 million/(2716 Mt/y x 30y) = $242/Mt, which is high. See URL, page 30

    Because these units had an average fuel use reduction of 23%, does not mean they are out of energy-hog territory, i.e., they likely would still not be sufficiently energy-efficient for 100% space heating with ASHPs.

    The rate of weatherizing is far too slow, and not “deep” enough, for the CEP 63% goal of space heating of all buildings using only ASHPs. See table 3

    A new approach, hopefully not involving government and Efficiency Vermont, is needed.

    1) Entire neighborhoods, with old houses, would need to be leveled for replacement with modern Passivhaus buildings.
    2) A new statewide, enforced, building code is required. See URL.

    • What, pray tell, does that technical dissertation on highly insulated new housing have to do with the commentary concerning roadblocks to affordable housing projects?

      • Oh, Lester.

        You have to think A to Z, the systems approach, because everything is connected.

        You see, if Vermont had put the horse before the cart, and enacted a strict and enforced net-zero energy, or energy-surplus building code, as many countries in Northern Europe have done about 15 to 20 years ago, there would be tens of thousands of highly sealed and highly insulated abodes, and heat pumps, ground and air source, would be wide-spread in Vermont.

        Such buildings likely would have enough solar panels and battery storage to charge one or two EVs.

        In fact, such buildings could easily be OFF THE GRID.

        Instead, Vermont pissed away billions of dollars over the past 20 years and has almost nothing to show for it, because those programs were based on politics-inspired, subsidy-chasing.

        Vermont has “weatherizing”, which reduces energy use, but does NOT make these abodes suitable for heat pumps to efficiently provide space heating; it is a social program for lower-income folks. Turner wants more weatherizing.

        The lack of energy seriousness and insight in Montpelier is breathtaking.

        • Thanks for your expanded-thinking viewpoints – small minds, as well as great minds think alike lol 😀

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