WHITE RIVER JUNCTION, Vt. — Conservative Vermonters alarmed by political and policy trends in the state gathered this week at an 802VT Alliance meeting, and attendees had no difficulty finding controversial issues to discuss.
The meeting, held Sunday at the Comfort Inn located on Ralph Lehman Drive, addressed concerns about Act 250, the decline in wealth-making, and traditional manufacturing in the state. Leaders also discussed fielding candidates for the 2020 election.
Founded by John de Bruin, a resident of Mt. Tabor, the 802VT Alliance is a grassroots organization formed earlier this year to support state candidates who embrace constitutional and conservative principles. The group claims no party affiliation, and leaders say they are open to conservative-minded members from any party.
De Bruin kicked off the gathering by lamenting the direction of the state.
“Vermont is a sinking ship,” he said. “We have deep financial, political and moral problems … with baby-killer bills, unnecessary gun laws. Is this what you want from Vermont? This is not why I moved here.”
According to de Bruin’s perspective, lawmakers have “lost touch with the people” and “can’t seem to comprehend that revenue has declined,” even while seeking new spending programs.
“Montpelier continues to grab our dollars like from some imaginary bottomless well,” he said. “Without businesses there are no jobs; without jobs there is no growth — simple economics. No one in Montpelier seems to understand this. The Progressives have hampered growth here.”
With that, De Bruin held up a hardcopy of the original four-page Act 250 from 1970, and next he displayed the updated, 45-page-long version of the state land use law.
“This state is well on its way of going under. [That’s why] we’re pushing for the repeal of Act 250,” he said. “In order for Vermont to grow, Act 250 overreach must end … [and] we must come up with sensible alternatives. It should be easy to find a solution to dump 250 in order for Vermont to grow.”
The group leader said Vermonters need to quickly get informed about the “Commission on Act 250: The Next 50 Years,” a push by the Legislature to make even more updates to the law.
“The current project [has] 86 [additional] pages of amendments,” de Bruin said. “ … Luckily, it wasn’t voted on this year, but I guarantee it will be voted on in the next session.
“The bad part about this revision is that it eliminates a lot of the grandfather clauses covering farms, quarries and the lumber industry; it even goes as far as removing your personal, private rights. If they succeed, this state will have full control of every acre in Vermont, whether you own it or not.”
The repeal movement
On the topic of actually repealing Act 250, guest speaker Dave Soulia, a farmer and member of the Pittsford Planning Commission, said he started the “Repeal Act 250” movement after seeing a homemade “Repeal Act 250” bumper sticker on a pickup truck. Like de Bruin, he believes Act 250 has ruined the state’s current and long-term economy.
“I didn’t know Vermont before Act 250 — it’s been here all my life,” Soulia said. “I’ve seen a once prosperous state nose-diving horrifically. Act 250 has all but destroyed the state, economically.”
Soulia’s journey to leading a reform movement began when he sought data on Act 250’s impact and couldn’t find anything that satisfied him. As a result, he launched an effort to reach out to business owners to see how much they have spent complying with Act 250.
“Those numbers are nowhere to be found. So, we are encouraging business people to step up and speak out,” he said.
To help with that data gathering, Soulia’s website, Fact 250.com, offers a section where individuals and business owners alike can tell their story about difficulties complying with state regulations.
Soulia contends that Act 250 has driven away billions of dollars from the state’s economy.
“Lawyers and engineers doing land-use litigation are doing very well under Act 250,” he noted, “so this is not a right or left discussion. We need a math discussion.”
“Who doesn’t want a livable wage and good affordable health care? But the money business owners would have had available for these better salaries and health care options have all been washed away by Act 250 compliance expenses,” he said.
Soulia concluded his presentation by comparing Vermont’s current economic situation to late author Ayn Rand’s 1957 speculative novel “Atlas Shrugged.” In the novel, excessive government regulations help create a total stop to the nation’s commercial output.
“Vermont is literally living ‘Atlas Shrugged,’” he said. “ … Yet how can our neighbor state New Hampshire have strong growth as well as a pristine environment but Vermont can’t do it? Thanks to Act 250!”
Decline in wealth-making
Next, retired Massachusetts Institute of Technology Lincoln Laboratory defense researcher Geoffrey T. Flanders, a resident of White River Junction, discussed the decline in Vermont’s homegrown wealth, as represented by his hometown of Springfield.
Flanders’ great grandfather was Republican Vermont Gov. James Hartness (1861-1933), a lathe and optical inventor, early aviator and astronomer. Both his paternal and maternal families were involved with various industrial enterprises over the decades, creating local economic opportunities.
“I grew up in Springfield,” Flanders said. “Because of the machine-tool industry located there, it’s now hard to imagine that such a small community could have produced so much wealth for the state and the nation before and after the war,”
Flanders said Vermont needs more of this wealth creation now.
“I was born in 1948, and in the 1950s people owned their own homes, drove new cars and sent their kids to colleges — it was ethnically diverse,” he said. “It wasn’t perfect: There were poor people, drunks and non-English speaking immigrants, but the little town of Springfield created so much wealth. Now there are many empty storefronts. In Springfield today the drug problem is shocking. Even Springfield Hospital, once respected, has declined and is losing millions of dollars.”
Flanders said that by the 1960s, unions and corporate sell-offs helped make manufacturing unviable in Springfield. However, he believes there are opportunities today that can make Vermont strong again. As one suggestion, he proposed that developing a local pyrolysis industry might be just the ticket for a small community such as Springfield.
“Pyrolysis is the thermal decomposition of materials at elevated temperatures in an inert atmosphere. Someday, Vermont could heat all its homes with this process.” he said.
Regardless of what industry it choses, Flanders argues, Vermont towns like Springfield need trained and educated professionals and something by which to create needed wealth for personal success and needed government services.
“Manufacturing produces tangible wealth; services [and tourism] don’t produce wealth,” he said. “Also, banks, real estate and insurance companies just concentrate the wealth in the hands of the rich. I think we can reinvent Vermont with new industries.”
He continued, “What we need, first, is liberty, low taxes and property rights so people can create something that produces. This state has so many inventors in its history, from steamboats to John Deere’s plow. And today we have computers and high-speed internet. But we have a command-driven state government, so we need to move decision-making down to the town and individual level.”
Concluding remarks by Poultney Selectboard member and 2018 state-Senate primary candidate Terry Williams offered attendees something to look forward to in the next election.
A former organic farmer and U.S. Army officer whose last tour of duty was in Afghanistan, Williams is now involved with the Rutland County GOP’s effort to help steer and develop future party leaders.
“We need leaders in this movement to stop the progressive-socialist onslaught in Vermont,” Williams said. “While I don’t consider myself a leader, I was a leader in the military and studied leadership skills … [and] we need leaders to step up.”
He said the continuing problems in Vermont have forced him to become increasingly engaged in the political process.
“Somebody has to do it, and if everyone sits back and tries to be politically correct and doesn’t step forward, more ground will be lost,” he said. “Conservatives typically don’t get involved with other people’s business, but we need to speak out now.”
He said conservatives did poorly in the 2018 election because they “didn’t have a plan,” and because progressives “forged ahead with their plans.”
“We need to unify fringe groups and get them thinking about what’s going on. We need to identify the opposition and defeat them [in the voting booth]. We need to start in municipal levels, from the grass roots up. We need to identify and train future leaders, and that’s where 802VT Alliance comes in,” he said.
Williams revealed that 802VT Alliance’s goal is to identify 180 conservative senators and representatives for the 2020 campaign, regardless of party affiliation.
“Will we attain this? Probably not, but we are targeting key leaders who have to go,” he said. “Most of my family were Democrats, but we used to be able to talk and agree to disagree. We can’t do that anymore.”
Lou Varricchio is a freelance reporter for True North Reports. Send him news tips at firstname.lastname@example.org.