Vermont legislators are considering a proposed amendment to the state’s constitution that would guarantee its residents the “right to a clean environment.”
The proposed amendment, sponsored by 15 Vermont state senators led by Sen. Chris Bray (D-Addison), would ensure “the people have a right to clean air and water, and the preservation of the natural, scenic, and cultural values of the environment.” The proposal would also require the state to “conserve and maintain the natural resources of Vermont for the benefit of all people.”
The language in the proposal is open to too much interpretation, says Rob Roper, president of the Ethan Allen Institute.
“What exactly is a ‘right to a clean environment’?” Roper asked. “Who is responsible for providing this ‘right’? This is dangerously vague and could mean anything a judge says it means.”
Danger to Construction
The clause requiring Vermont to preserve the state’s “natural and scenic” resources could impede or even halt the progress of housing and development projects in the state, says Roper.
“This could be easily interpreted to mean all building of anything in Vermont must cease, because even the construction of a shed impacts natural and scenic resources, which the state would be obligated to conserve and maintain,” Roper said.
End to Private Property?
Another concern Roper raises concerns the clause stating, “The State of Vermont’s natural resources are the common property of all the people.”
That statement could be read as imposing socialism in Vermont, taking resources currently held as private property from their owners, says Roper.
“As this amendment reads, the trees in my yard, the water in my rain barrel, the soil my grass grows on, as well as the grass, my pond if I had one, if I strike gold or want to quarry granite or slate—all of a sudden none of this is mine anymore, but the property of ‘all the people,’ and what I do with it is not my prerogative anymore, as these things ‘shall be’ conserved and maintained by the state, not for my benefit as I see fit, but for the benefit of all people as determined by ‘The State,’” Roper said.
Bray has said he is aware of the concerns about property rights and believes any private property rights problems would probably be ironed out in the legislative process.
Many Hurdles Ahead
The proposed constitutional amendment is in its early stages. It was read on the Senate floor on February 14 and referred to the state Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Energy, of which Bray is chairman.
Vermont’s Constitution establishes the state’s General Assembly has the sole power to propose amendments to Vermont’s Constitution.
The process must be initiated in a Senate elected in an “off-year,” meaning a year without a national presidential election. Any proposed amendment must be approved by a two-thirds vote in the Senate before it is considered by the House, where it must receive a simple majority vote favor of the amendment. Then, after a newly elected legislature is seated, the amendment must receive a majority vote in each chamber of the General Assembly, before it is then placed as a referendum on the next election’s ballot, where a majority of voters must approve it.
Under this system, the voters would not be able to consider the amendment establishing a “right to a clean environment,” before 2022 at the earliest.