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June 19, 2009

VT Archeology: Bitin' the Dust?

New rules allowing all-terrain vehicles on some state lands aren't the only ones the Douglas administration has in the works that are raising eyebrows.

Vermont's Division of Historic Preservation will soon launch a series of public meetings around the state to gather input on changes to rules governing the treatment of potential archaeological sites when a development is reviewed under Act 250, the state's land use law.

The first hearing is Tuesday night in Williston from 5-6:30 p.m. in the police station's community room. Additional hearings will be held this month in Rutland (June 25) and St. Johnsbury (June 30), and next month in Rockingham (July 14).

Some critics of the changes fear the Douglas administration is throwing a bone to the development community, a group that has provided Douglas with thousands of dollars in campaign cash over the years. In addition, two of Douglas' top officials — Commerce Secretary Kevin Dorn and Deputy Commissioner for Housing Tayt Brooks — once worked for the Home Builders and Remodelers Association of Northern Vermont.

One archaeological expert said the changes could dramatically alter how archaeology is conducted in Vermont, potentially leaving hundreds of sites, and thousands of years of history, buried forever.

Not all the changes are controversial.

For decades, archaeologists and developers have sought a more predictable system for reviewing potential sites and paying for those reviews to be conducted. That's one of the major reasons behind the change. Rather than have projects paid for piecemeal, the state will impose a development fee of 25 cents per $1000 of construction costs per project. The money will be placed into a special fund, and regional Act 250 commissions would be allowed to dip into the fund to pay for archaeological reviews of selected areas.

However, the issue of how potential archaeological sites would be picked for investigation is drawing some concern from John Crock, one of the state's leading archaeologists. Crock directs the University of Vermont's Consulting Archaeology Program.

Crock believes the proposed rule would restrict new archaeological digs largely to areas on historic sites currently listed on the State Register of Historic Places. He said there are thousands of sites in Vermont that could be lost forever if the rules are adopted as is.

For example, the Douglas administration has deleted the phrase “or a potentially significant property or resource” when talking about what can trigger a review, leaving only “a project’s potential for effect on a Historic Site," notes Crock. If a project is not on the state's historic registry, the local Act 250 commission can allow for a site to be investigated, but only in "exceptional circumstances."

"From a preservation standpoint the rules changes make no sense, requiring reviews only on parcels where significant sites have already been identified," said Crock. "This would be the equivalent of only mapping wetlands on properties where wetlands have already been mapped, only inventorying wildlife habitats on properties where animal species have already been inventoried, or only checking for rare plant colonies on properties where rare plant colonies are already recorded."

Economic Development Commissioner Betsy Bishop, whose office oversees the Division of Historic Preservation, said the proposed rule changes are not intended to weaken the state's existing rules, only to clarify their intent.

"Our intention is to merely make the process more predictable for developers and those in historic preservation," said Bishop. "We're not trying to change anything in the existing rules to limit the ability to locate new archaeological sites, but just clarify who has the ability to decide which ones are appropriate for review and who pays for those reviews."

The proposed rule clarifies that the authority rests with the Act 250 commission and not the state's historic preservation office. 

Changing the funding mechanism will also make it easier for developers to proceed with projects without having to guess how much a possible survey is going to cost them.

"A developer coming into the process now has no idea what it's going to cost, but this will allow them to pay a certain fee and then the local commission will be the one to pay for it rather than the developer," said Bishop.

The proposed rule changes are in draft form and subject to change once the public weighs in, she notes. In fact, the department is taking the added step of seeking public input before it develops a formal rule change. That process will take place before the Legislative Committee on Administrative Rules, and could occur later this summer or fall. LCAR will also hold public hearings on the rule before its adoption.

Crock also believes the proposed rule changes weaken the power of the state's historic preservation officer to recommend new archaeological sites for review during the Act 250 process.

Under the existing rules, if the state preservation officer finds a site meets the criteria needed to be a historic site, that's enough to help trigger an archaeological survey. The new rules would only make that recommendation "persuasive evidence" before the district commission.

Crock said that, while the preservation officer's recommendation to the Act 250 commission is always advisory, this change will potentially make it easier for the panel to reject a review.

Ironically, the division's changes could end up weakening Vermont's archaeological rules — the same rules that the Douglas administration used just a year ago to bring composting in Burlington's Intervale to a standstill. In addition, the administration's strict interpretation of the state's archaeological rules in that instance almost forced further restrictions on existing farming and gardening activities.

Intervale Compost was one of two compost operations last year that drew the ire of Douglas regulators.

Crock said sites like the one recently documented in Lamoille County would never be investigated if the current draft of the archaeological rules were adopted. A similar treasure trove would have been lost at the base of Okemo Mountain if those rules had been in place, he noted. At the base of the ski mountain, archaeologists found a settlement dating back to when Lake Champlain was an ocean.

"Eliminating from review areas with the potential to contain significant sites will permit destruction of countless numbers of significant sites that presently lie undisturbed and preserved, most of them related to the 12,000 years of Vermont’s unwritten Native American history," noted Crock. "What will be the economic benefit of abandoning the potential contributions of these sites? Who will be the beneficiaries?   Times of economic stress should cause us to be even more protective of the resources we have."

A copy of the draft rules can be downloaded from the state's Division of Historic Preservation by clicking here.

I addition to Dr. Crock's response to the proposed changes concerning archaeological investigations and ACT 250, I would like to add that archaeological sites, known and unknown, are NON-RENEWABLE resources that belong to all Vermonters. Once gone, forever gone. In some instances, other valuable resources such as wildlife, wetlands, existing buildings, among others, can be created elsewhere, moved, and most importantly, be identified as they are usually in plain site. Out-of-site, out-of-mind, should not be used as a criteria for protection for any of our natural and cultural resources. Although, understandably, the protection and preservation of ALL of our resources does come with a cost, their value only adds to our sense of place, to what it is to live in such a conscientious state. In saying this, I fully support any sufficient finance plan to assure our further appreciation of what is all around us, in and out of plain site.

I read with the interest the article on the Lamoille archeology dig in the Free Press earlier in the week and the editorial following it. Neither of these articles indicated that ACT 250 may be altered to significantly limit the very opportunity of acquiring historical knowledge. ACT 250, in my opinion, was enacted with foresight. Amongst its goals is the prevention of environmental and historic site destruction by "development". In an era when we supposedley recognize the value of natural resources as well as the knowledge that potential irreplaceable artifacts provide, it seems incongruous to facilitate their loss despite a poor economy. If a dollar value is difficult to determine for (particularly without foresight) acquiring knowledge, doesn't that tell us that perhaps we need to consider it priceless?

“or a potentially significant property or resource”

In whose opinion is a property or resource "potentially significant"? That of somebody who doesn't like the proposed development for selfish reasons (i.e., nimby-ism)? So I can cause a development to come to a grinding halt by telling the ACT 250 people that I think the proposal for low-income housing down the street will have an impact on a "potentially significant property or resource"? And what does "potentially" significant mean? And in whose opinion? Does the abandoned, 1950's era gas station down the street from the much-needed low-income housing development constitute a "potentially significant property or resource" because I say so? Because I pretend to be an enthusiastic fan of 1950's commercial architecture?

And so the low-income housing project comes to a halt, even if only for the time it takes everybody to figure out that I am a selfish nimbyist making up excuses to oppose a much needed project?

Substitute any of the following for the low-income housing project mentioned above: elderly housing, wind turbine, solar panel array, composting operation, farm, etc., etc.

Under Act 250 as currently constructed, if I want to I can stop any project, at least temporarily, no matter how valuable the project and no matter how flimsy, selfish, or ridiculous my objections are.

Maybe this is one reason why the economy in Vermont sucks?

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