After weeks of debate centered on the rights of lakeside property owners and the urgency to protect Vermont’s shared resources, a committee of lawmakers approved legislation to regulate shoreland around the state’s lakes and ponds.
The Senate Natural Resources and Energy Committee unanimously approved a bill Friday to require a permit for certain development around lakes and ponds of greater than 10 acres.
The Senate’s version of H.526 requires a state permit to develop property within 250 feet of lakeshores under certain conditions. The bill also includes a list of exemptions for small projects, qualifying towns and urban and agricultural shorelands.
Chief among the bill’s critics was Sen. John Rodgers, D-Essex-Orleans, who voted to support the bill Friday. Rodgers sought to ease the bill’s regulatory impact on landowners by negotiating several provisions.
“I think that it is not exactly what I wanted, but also a lot of the concessions weren’t exactly what the rest of the committee wanted. So it kind of felt that we met halfway,” Rodgers said.
The bill allows property owners to create a 6-foot wide path down to the waterfront without obtaining a permit. At issue with this provision was whether the path would be too narrow to allow convenient construction on the waterfront, such as a dock or boathouse.
Rodgers wanted to allow property owners to double the size of the path twice a year.
“I understand the committee’s concern about habit and water quality, and I share that. But the difference between me and the rest of the committee is that I have done this for 20 plus years working around lakes. And so I have real life experience with it,” he said.
Other provisions include a permit exemption for a 250-square-foot area within the protected zone for recreational purposes, such as a fire pit, and allowing more flexibility for home additions.
Chris Rice, a lawyer and lobbyist representing Vermont Realtors, said the committee’s bill, though better than previous the House bill, will still burden property owners already struggling with existing permitting fees.
“It’s no one single thing, but it is the accumulation of some areas of permitting systems that has become overly burdensome,” he told the committee, adding that without a more comprehensive look at the state’s permit laws, “this is one more layer that is going to add one more burden to property owners.”
Sen. Peter Galbraith, D-Windham, said the bill protects lakeside property owners by ensuring the long-term health of the state’s lakes.
“But if everybody makes use of their land, the maximum, they won’t have any lake to use. It will be something quite different. So, this is in the collective interest of all the property owners. And it’s in the interest of the state because these are public trusts, these are wildlife habitats, and there are lots of other ecological values here,” Galbraith told the committee.
The bill requires municipal regulations to be “functionally equivalent” to the statewide standard if towns wish to override the state’s permit, a determined by Agency of Natural Resources, which offered key details to the bill.
Susan Warren, section chief of Lakes & Ponds Management in the Department of Environmental Conservation, said there are nearly 50 towns that have shoreland protection regulations. A very small portion of these towns would meet the statewide criteria, she said.
Jake Brown, government affairs and communications director for the Vermont Natural Resources Council, said the council, which previously pushed for stronger state control, is satisfied with the current exemption for eligible towns.
“I think it seems clear in the bill that there is a good solid floor of requirements that cities and towns would have to meet in order to get delegation. And we think that’s fine,” Brown said.
He said the bill’s only minor shortcoming is that it would go into effect July 1, which some say encourages landowners to develop their property before the regulations kick in.
“The most protective bill would be one that had an effective date upon passage,” he said, a date that was struck from the bill Friday. “The sooner the bill goes into effect, the sooner better protections are in place for lake.”
The House bill and the agency’s recommendations included an exemption for agricultural land. Committee members considered striking this exemption from the bill early in the week.
“My concern is how do we make a positive argument that our intent is to protect shorelands and then exempt agriculture, which we know is a large contributor?” said committee Vice Chair Diane Snelling, R-Chittenden, the bill’s lead proponent.
The bill currently requires agricultural shoreline development to meet best management practices set by the Secretary of Agriculture, Food and Markets as a condition of the exemption.