A Natural Resource

Diane Snelling follows her family’s legacy

by Will Lindner

diane_snellingDiane Snelling, chair of the Vermont Natural Resources Board, stands in the lovely, historic Victorian house that’s the board’s new Montpelier headquarters.

In Diane Snelling’s office at the Vermont Natural Resources Board’s headquarters in Montpelier hangs a painting in autumnal tones of brown and black, depicting a bifurcated tree trunk amidst ferns shown dry and wispy in the slanting light.

The painting, and its setting in the offices where Vermont’s unique land-use and development-review law, Act 250, is administered, somehow tie the diverse and interesting strains of Snelling’s life together. Snelling is chair of the board, and the creator of the painting.

Known chiefly for her work in the public sector — she served two terms on the Hinesburg Selectboard (1985–1991), 15 years in the Vermont Senate (ending in 2016), and two years now at the Natural Resources Board — Snelling is by equal measure a private person, drawn to the secluded pastimes of gardening at her Hinesburg home and of painting, drawing, and creating miniature sculptures from resins and other moldable materials.

The dichotomy of the public and private selves for Snelling, though, is accentuated by her inheritance of a famous name — her father, Richard Snelling, was a charismatic politician who served two stints (1977–1985 and 1990–1991) as governor, and her mother, Barbara, was Vermont’s lieutenant governor (1993–1997) and a state senator from Chittenden County (1999–2001) — and by a fervent belief in civic duty.

“Both my parents truly believed that if you can, you should work to make the world a better place,” says Snelling, 66. “There isn’t any doubt in my mind that I learned that lesson: that if you can, you should. And in a place like Vermont, you can.”

Yet the limelight has never been an entirely comfortable place for Snelling, who recalls herself as “a very shy kid” in a family that was politically active even before her father was widely known. “You go to all these parades and events, and I was not keen on it at all.”

Snelling graduated from Champlain Valley Union High School in 1970, and from Harvard (1974) with a bachelor’s degree in a hybrid pursuit called visual and environmental studies. She pursued the “visual” component by hightailing it to California, where she created “cryptics,” a form of cartoon she describes as “visual jokes.”

“I had a suitcase full of rejection notices!” she laments.

More successful were the seven years she then spent in New York City, employing her artistic interests in marketing and advertising for Comart Aniforms, where she was frequently assigned projects for corporations like American Airlines, Revlon, and Estee Lauder. She returned to Vermont in 1983 to work with her brother Mark at Shelburne Corp., a family-owned company providing accessories for the ski industry that Snelling and her three siblings purchased from their father in 1981.

During the early 1990s she commuted between Vermont and New York to pursue a master’s degree in art from NYU, which she earned in 1994.

Snelling was an adult by the time her father became governor, but she was still put off by the spotlight and the combative nature of the political sphere. “I really felt I was never going into politics,” she says.

Fate had other ideas. When her mother (a widow since Richard Snelling died while in office in 1991) suffered a stroke in 2001 and concluded she should resign her Senate seat, then-Gov. Howard Dean pondered her replacement.

“He said he wanted someone like her,” Snelling quips. “I was pretty much like her.”

Suddenly the “shy kid” was a state senator. Appointed in January 2002 and elected that November, she was subsequently re-elected seven times and became a fixture on the Senate Appropriations Committee and the Natural Resources Committee, a logical, thematic continuum of her Harvard degree. In 2016, the chair of the Natural Resources Board announced his resignation, and Snelling pondered a move.

“I talked to a few people,” she says, “and they were very supportive — ‘Yes, you’d be qualified!’ — so I applied.”

Then-Gov. Peter Shumlin selected her, and Snelling has since been reappointed by Gov. Phil Scott. The NRB oversees the mechanism by which Act 250 regulates development, through a permitting process, for projects large enough to meet its jurisdictional criteria. Its goal is to ensure that projects are designed to protect the state’s environment and natural resources. Projects are evaluated by regional “district commissions” under 10 criteria (each, by now, with numerous sub-criteria) that weigh potential threats of pollution, sprawl, forest fragmentation, and other detrimental effects to, essentially, Vermont’s time-honored way of life.

“I love Act 250,” Snelling asserts. “I think it’s a very elegant law, and as a former lawmaker I don’t think it’s easy to write elegant laws. And I think it should be implemented with the same grace it was written with.”

Inelegant laws, she explains, are poorly written and suffer from internal contradictions that subvert their effectiveness. Launched in 1970, Act 250 is now almost 50 years old, and many of its subsections have been added to sharpen its focus or address newer, sometimes unforeseen, concerns. Still, Snelling believes, “The law is essentially the same.”

Certainly it has its detractors who claim Act 250 thwarts development. Snelling doesn’t dismiss their concerns. But she also points to the “Act 250 Rundown” published annually in Business People–Vermont: In May, the “Rundown” listed $679 million in commercial projects over $250,000 approved in 2017. “I do think that shows that things have successfully gone through this process, and that therefore there are protections and encouragements and incentives for building.”

Her tenure as NRB chair, however, coincides with the most sweeping review of Act 250 ever undertaken. Last year the Legislature enacted Act 47, which created The Commission on Act 250: The Next 50 Years. The commission is now engaged in a broad effort to not only examine the law’s fairness and efficiency, but also equip it for the environmental — and, by extension, the social and economic — issues arising in the 21st century. Snelling and her staff provide information, background, and testimony.

The panel’s report is due on December 15. She anticipates that it may include recommendations for addressing climate change — building environmental and structural resilience against “exaggerated storms” into its permits — and devising a needed mechanism to address the cumulative impacts of smaller, unregulated developments.

She also mentions coordination with local and regional planning as an area that could be improved, and more clarity and certainty in the application and review process.

“I think regulation that’s very clear — so you know what you have to do, what the sequence is, how you [can anticipate] changes you’ll need to make, and you can predict when you’re going to get your permit — to me,” says Snelling, “those are things people have been asking for.”

Ernie Pomerleau, president of Pomerleau Real Estate in Burlington (“I probably have more Act 250 permits than anybody!”), believes Snelling is well-suited to chair the NRB, particularly at this juncture. Pomerleau serves on an advisory committee that provides input to the legislative commission.

“What’s managed under Act 250?” he asks. “It’s business that’s managed, so it’s businesses that have to be stewards of the environment through this process. You also need to maintain the economy, which provides taxes to support the social fabric, and jobs for people to earn money to support the environment and the state we all share.

“Diane has been good about helping to establish trust and create a setting where the environment is protected and businesses are held accountable, but in a fair and predictable way. It’s a tricky weave, but she comes from the Republican side of the venue, so the business community feels listened to, but she also has years of experience on the environmental side. Diane is in the middle, trying to manage the process efficiently and caringly.”

Susan Bartlett of Hyde Park served for a decade in the state Senate with Snelling. The two were roommates during the session each year and became fast friends. Bartlett, a Democrat, describes the challenges Snelling faces at the NRB. “So many people, both in and out of government, don’t understand what Act 250 is and what it does. Consequently, lots of blame gets put on Act 250 for things it has nothing to do with. That, I know, has been a frustration for Diane.”

Soon, she notes, Snelling will be leading the board and staff through changes emanating from the commission’s report.

“Diane is nothing if not quietly and steadfastly determined,” says Bartlett, “which I think is a really good quality when trying to get structural change.” What the state needs, and what Snelling will doggedly pursue, she adds, “is a structure that works for everyone.”

That’s consistent with Snelling’s own assessment of her Senate career. “Everything good I was able to help achieve in the Legislature,” she says, “was based on collaboration and finding agreement.”

Meanwhile, her commitment to community service thrives in other realms, as well, having served on the boards of the Lake Champlain Regional Chamber of Commerce and UVM’s Fleming Museum. Particularly important to her are her efforts for the Richard A. and Barbara W. Snelling Center for Government, a nonprofit focused on leadership development that she has served as an active participant on the board since its founding in 1992, and the Turning Point Recovery Center in Burlington.

“I believe very strongly that that’s one of the best ways we can help people with addiction,” she stresses, “providing an environment where they can talk to other people who’ve gone through it. It’s support for staying sober.”

This, like her aspirations for perfecting Act 250, is an expression of Snelling’s certainty that, when it comes down to it, we’re all one community. •