Water protection, property rights debated, but lakeshore development bill gets passed by Vermont House

Water protection, property rights debated; lakeshore development bill gets passed by Vermont House

LakeChampalgaeSLIDERAGAINHow far is the state willing to go to protect its lakeshores? The House passed a bill today that goes exactly 250 feet.

H.526 requires property owners to obtain a permit prior to building within this distance of a lakeshore. The bill went through 12 permutations before making it to the House floor yesterday, where it withstood several hours of scrutiny.

Rep. David Deen, D-Putney, chair of the Fish & Wildlife Committee, which sponsored the bill, said he is content with the final iteration. But not everyone is as pleased.

Environmental organizations are hoping the Senate enacts stricter standards when it takes the bill up. On the other side of the issue, some lawmakers say H.526, which was watered down considerably in committee, is still an infringement on private property.

Proponents of the bill say it’s a good first step towards improving water quality of lakes by preserving the vegetative cover on their shorelines.

At the outset of consideration, the lakeshore protection bill would have outlawed construction within 100 feet of a shoreline.

The version of the bill that passed today does not contain a no-build zone, but it does require lakefront property owners to obtain a permit from the Agency of Natural Resources for construction occurring within 250 feet of a lakeshore.

Rep. Kate Webb, D-Shelburne, a member of the Fish & Wildlife Committee, said the members struggled to develop a bill that respected the rights of both municipalities and private property owners. The initial bill “really didn’t have any support,” Webb said, among members of the committee.

Deen said H.526 now makes it “exquisitely clear that private property is private property.” By purging the bill of the no-build provision, it adopts a performance standard rather than a zoning standard. In other words, there are no restrictions on how close to the shore something can be built, as long the project complies with water quality and habitat preservation standards laid out in the bill.

But environmental groups say this change saps much of the bill’s strength. “The message it sends,” Kim Greenwood, water program director for the Vermont Natural Resources Council (VNRC) said, “is you can build anywhere as long as you get a permit.”

H.526 would not apply to the 48 municipalities that already have vegetative cover requirements for shoreline property.

Greenwood says this provision also weakens the bill, since some of these bylaws are more lenient than the state standards H.526 sets up.

“If we are trying to be equally protective of our lakes, then some minimum standards really should apply to every lakeshore.”

The VNRC is also concerned that H.526 will send property owners scrambling to start projects before ANR implements its permit process in January 2015.

“Until January 2015, people can cut, build, impact, put in lawns with impunity and that is obviously a big loophole that we‘d like to see closed,” Greenwood said.

If a flurry of construction does ensue, Deen said his committee would consider putting a temporary moratorium on lakeside development.

On the House floor Wednesday and today, private property rights trumped lakeside protection as the primary concern.

Rep. Robert Helm, R-Fair Haven, proposed a slew of amendments that would have given greater leeway to private property owners. Helm said he didn’t buy the “doom and gloom” argument that Vermont’s lakes are deteriorating. “I’ll tell you, our lakes are improving,” Helm said, adding that even if there is truth to the naysayers’ argument, “planting a bunch of bushes out front isn’t going to do a whole lot.”

There were also worries among lawmakers that the bill hands too much discretionary power to ANR.

“This bill is a skeleton waiting for flesh,” Rep. Tom Koch, R-Barre, said. And, Koch continued, ANR has a tendency to “dress things up real pretty.”

Koch explained that he supports the intent of the bill, but he doesn’t trust ANR to execute it. “Certainly when I’m water skiing and I take a face plant and involuntarily gulp some water, I want it to be clean,” Koch said. But, he added, “we give them [ANR] a blank check and say go ahead and write the regulations.”

But this is not a cause for concern, Deen said, because ANR will develop rules with input from stakeholders, and the agency will have to receive the Fish & Wildlife Committee’s approval prior to putting them in place.

Clarification: Rep. Kate Webb said the initial bill did not have the support necessary for a favorable vote out of committee. It had strong support among environmental advocates. Article updated at 2:11pm on March 29, 2013.

Alicia Freese

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