Turfboard Champion

This agency keeps watch over Vermont’s land and water

by Virginia Lindauer Simmon

Peter F. Young Jr.In 2005, the Vermont General Assembly created the Natural Resources Board to succeed the Environmental and Water Resources boards. Peter F. Young Jr. has been the board’s full-time chairman since Gov. James Douglas appointed him in 2006.

Peter Young had to receive an official pardon from Gov. Philip Hoff before he could become a lawyer. That’s because, in 1962, he and two of his buddies — fellow members of their rock band, Mike and the Ravens — figured out how to put a rock-and-roll album on the Community Church carillon in Stowe — unfortunately, at an hour earlier than planned.

“There were three of us,” he says with a laugh: “me; Steve Blodgett, who’s now a lawyer in Burlington; and Brian Lyford, my former law partner, who’s now in Wells. 

“It went off at 2 a.m. — the whole album played. The sound could be heard for seven miles. The first song was “Big Guitar.” We watched from behind the high school as the lights went on in the valley. It was one of the most exhilarating things we’ve ever done. Alice Blodgett, Steve’s mother, called the sheriff next day and said, ‘Look no further; it had to be my son and his buddies.’ We got 60 days — 58 suspended — spent over two days in the Hyde Park jail, and were on probation for six months. That’s why we became lawyers!” He says that author Bill Schubart recounts the entire tale in his book The Lamoille Stories.

Recognizing and appreciating — and sometimes introducing — humor in situations appears to be an integral part of Young’s approach to life. Blodgett, a partner in the Burlington firm Blodgett, Watts, Volk and Sawyer PC, can attest to that fact. He met Young in the summer of 1960 when he went to Lake Placid, N.Y., to caddy. 

“There were three guys from Northfield who went over there; Pete was one of them. I heard about it from one of their sisters, who was a teacher in Stowe High School, where I went,” says Blodgett. “We got to the place where the caddies hung out — I was only 15 and trying to be impressive — and the next thing I know, my pants are on fire. Peter had put my pants on fire! So that’s how I met him.” Blodgett adds that Young was testing him. “I don’t know if I passed or flunked,” he says wryly.

John Wakefield, Melanie Kehne, Ken SmithThe Natural Resources Board administers Act 250; makes water resource management policy; and has enforcement authority over land-use permit violations. John Wakefield (left) is permit compliance officer; Melanie Kehne is associate general counsel; and Ken Smith is enforcement attorney.

Of the three errant friends, Young was the first to decide to be a lawyer, says Blodgett. Following graduation from the University of Vermont with a history major, Young entered Albany Law School of Union University in New York. After graduating in 1969, he returned to Vermont and clerked for a year for U.S. District Court Judge Bernard Leddy.

“He is a good lawyer,” says Blodgett. “He won’t tell you this, but he was one of the top 10 in his graduating law school class, and he got the top cumulative overall grade in Vermont when he took the bar exam.”

“I had always planned to come back to Northfield and open a law practice, which I did for the next 36 years,” says Young. He began and ended that period in solo practice, although from 1972 to 2004, he was in partnership with Peter Monte, and from 1985 to 2004, Lyford joined them to form Young, Monte & Lyford LLP.

Young stayed active in state affairs. “In the ’70s, I chaired the Vermont State Employees Labor Relations Board, and I served as a Democrat in the Legislature with Jim Douglas, who was there as a Republican,” he says.

That connection led Douglas (as governor) to appoint Young to the District 5 Environmental Commission in 2003. He served as a volunteer and eventual chairman, until Douglas appointed him chairman of the newly formed Natural Resources Board in 2006.

“That meant I had to close my law practice,” says Young, “because the chair is a full-time state employee.”

The Natural Resources Board, Young continues, “was a creature of what we call ‘permit reform.’ It was created by Act 115 of the Vermont General Assembly to succeed the Environmental and Water Resources boards on February 1, 2005.” 

Michael ZahnerMichael Zahner, the board’s executive director, was executive director of its predecessor, the Environmental Board.

The NRB is not related to or involved with the Agency of Natural Resources — a common assumption because of the similarity of their names, Young says. “We are a separate, stand-alone department of state government.” 

Muddying the waters further is the fact that the board does work with the Agency of Natural Resources in a number of areas. “We share administration with them; they do our payroll,” says Young, “but we’re separate.”

The board has 31 employees, including Young and Michael Zahner, the executive director; about 63 citizen volunteers serve on the nine district commissions (which work from five regional offices); and another nine members (plus three alternates) serve on the Natural Resources Board and its two panels — one for land use and one for water resources. As one of the nine, Young chairs both panels and the board; the other eight are split, four on land use and four on natural resources.

The NRB administers the Act 250 process and has rule-making and enforcement authority over land-use permit violations. It has the right to participate in certain appeals to the Vermont Environmental Court. 

“The real action is with the two panels,” Young says, using the land-use panel as an example. “Under our new mission, we are in part a public environmental law firm, so to speak, and the land-use panel will decide what cases to become involved in. Also, we spend a lot of time prosecuting violations and their enforcement.”

The water panel regulates all of the state’s water resources, so discussion might be about the use of rivers and ponds or the Clean Water Act and Triennial Review, says Young, “which we’re going through right now. That gets really complicated, because water laws are very arcane.”

During the legislative session, staffers may be called on a moment’s notice. “One of my attorneys has been down there on the Wetlands bill,” says Young. “It just passed both houses. We spent a lot of time this year one it.”

Denise Wheeler and Lou BorieThe Natural Resources Board has the second-highest employee longevity in state government. Both Denise Wheeler, business administrator, and Lou Borie, chief coordinator, are longtimers.

The bill gives the secretary of the Agency of Natural Resources the authority to “nimbly — inexpensively — protect wetlands,” he continues. “It took over three years, but all the parties finally worked out their differences — environmental advocates, real estate people, and everybody in between supported this bill.”

Working on the enforcement end was new to Young. On the District 5 Environmental Commission, he had a taste of it, and he had dealt with Act 250 cases as a lawyer, but never in detail. 

“As a district commission member, we would from time to time receive an application from somebody who had built a project without a permit, and now they’re coming in to get a permit, and that’s OK — dealing with compliance — but what’s the penalty?”

It bothered it him that there was no consequence. “Sometimes, people try to get away with things, and there has to be some consequence. So look at it: Was it intentional? Unintentional? A mom and pop who didn’t know? A big company, and it’s the cost of doing business?”

It’s no surprise, then, that one of Young’s aims was for the board to be very methodical on enforcement and fees. Filing fees are generally $4.75 per $1,000, based on estimated project cost, but there was no way to capture any difference in fees for actual cost. 

After Young arrived, the land-use panel passed a policy requiring the filing of a post-construction certification of actual cost. “It’s just human nature that when you’re estimating, you’re going to estimate low. Nobody’s out to gouge anybody, but that’s what the law allows,” says Young. 

In 2007, he says, the board acquired a “permit compliance officer: a person who goes into the field and can check out complaints. The job is twofold: to get people into compliance; and enforcement.” John Wakefield, formerly permit specialist with the Burlington development firm Redstone, was hired.

Last year was particularly challenging because of the Intervale situation, he says. The District 4 coordinator ruled that the Intervale compost people needed an Act 250 permit. “The panel and the Intervale folks reached a settlement agreement that they would obtain one. That was an interesting year.

“It created a situation,” he says, “because compost is a good thing. Down here in Montpelier, there’s a similar situation.”

The irony, he continues, is that the nine district coordinators have the right by law to issue jurisdictional opinions on their own authority, and “we do not have any say here in Montpelier what the decision should be in those opinions, but the public thinks, because we’re the board, it must be us doing this. Then because the governor appoints the board, it must be the governor.”

As stressful as it can be, Young appears to be thriving. “He really likes his staff,” says Blodgett. “They have different views and politics, but he has a lot of respect and a lot of affection for them.”

Young still lives in Northfield, with his wife, Susanne, a Northfield native, whom he married in 1980 after a divorce that left him with custody of his two sons, Peter and Michael. They have a daughter, Amy, who is in a doctoral program at the University of New England in Maine. Young and Susanne — who is also a lawyer and works as the governor’s counsel — love to travel, he says.

Young still plays drums with Mike and the Ravens. “Our third album is coming out this summer,” he says. “We’re on a real label, Zoho, which has won several Grammies.”

Blodgett was kidding, of course, about whether he passed Young’s test back in 1960. They have remained close through thick and thin. It appears that Young passed Blodgett’s test as well. 

Says Blodgett, “I like those guys from Northfield a whole lot.” •