Energy & Environment

Fairlee pauses building around Lake Morey

Environmental scientist Leslie Matthews, of the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources, checks the level of a sample of water from Lake Morey in Fairlee, Vt., on Tuesday, Aug. 24, 2021, that will be tested for phosphorous. Matthews and other water quality monitors on the lake are researching rising levels of phosphorous in the lake. Courtesy photo Valley News/James M. Patterson. May not be reprinted or used online without permission.

This article by Claire Potter was first published Sept. 9 in the Valley News.

FAIRLEE — The Fairlee Selectboard this week unanimously adopted a building moratorium around Lake Morey until it has a better understanding of the nutrient sources that are contributing to repeated cyanobacteria blooms.

“We just saw an influx (of people) during COVID,” Peter Berger, who chairs the Selectboard, said in an interview Monday, hours before the Selectboard held a public hearing and voted on the matter.

An unusually high number of people using the houses around the lake, many of which are normally seasonal, because of the pandemic possibly put pressure on septic systems near the lake, town officials said. While the Selectboard is “not opposed” to higher use, Berger said that “we would like to make sure that all the conditions and criteria are being met to keep the lake safe. It’s a valuable resource for the town.”

The moratorium affects properties on both sides of Lake Morey and Clubhouse roads that fall in the “lake” and “lake shore resort” zoning areas. It will last for at least one year, during which residents cannot build new subdivisions, new principal buildings, or projects that would require a “conditional use permit.” The Selectboard may extend it for a second year.

Fairlee Zoning Administrator Chris Brimmer said during the hearing that property owners along the lake “can’t so much as put in a shed” without a conditional use permit.

In an interview on Wednesday, Brimmer said, “It’s a whole neighborhood of nonconforming lots and buildings and questionable septic systems.” He has seen an increase in conditional use permits for taking down a structure and replacing it with another on the same footprint, as well as for converting homes from seasonal to full-time use.

“It’s the typical issue with a lot of lakes that were seasonal communities, and our use patterns have really changed, and that’s just accelerated with the pandemic,” he said. “The lights went on in March around the lake and they haven’t gone off since.”

There have been bidding wars on lake homes, and new owners have applied to change the older homes or add new buildings. Martha E. Diebold Real Estate in Hanover listed a 3-bedroom house on the western shore of the lake for $950,000 on Sept. 2, and it was already under contract by Sept. 5, the agency said. The asking price was well above the home’s assessed value of $523,800.

Susanne Pacilio, the listing agent for the property, lives in another residence on the lake.

“Absolutely, I’m concerned,” she said, when asked about the cyanobacteria. As of yet, the problem “doesn’t seem to have affected” home values, but she said that would likely change if there were large blooms.

Faulty or overloaded septic systems could be contributing to the rising nutrient levels detected by scientists with the Agency of Natural Resources in recent years. The nutrients in turn feed cyanobacteria in the lake. ANR has hosted educational programs to inform homeowners at the lake how to manage their septic systems in order to protect water quality. Some of the nutrients in the lake could also be entering through its tributaries, and possible sources are not limited to septic tanks near the lake. The interstate cut into the mountain above the lake, run-off from roads and fields, erosion on roads, fertilizer on lawns, a warming climate, and chemical processes on the lake bed are all potential contributors. State scientists who sampled the lake said that the lakeshore found that there is little agriculture in the watershed, but that there is a high percentage of lawns and impervious surfaces on the lakeshore. where runoff was likely depositing phosphorus in the lake and the algae tended to be thickest near the developed sites.

Berger explained that the town’s authority over existing septic systems is limited in comparison to new construction. The moratorium on new construction will give the town time to change its zoning rules, and Berger said that new regulations may require a septic review for future conditional use permits.

The moratorium tasks the Selectboard with undertaking a watershed analysis to identify the poorly understood sources of the nutrients feeding cyanobacteria in the lake as well as possible infrastructure and policy changes to remediate the problem.

The high phosphorus levels that nourish cyanobacteria are a major concern. Clots of algae can deface a lake and turn away tourists. People also have to avoid swimming and fishing during a bloom, which occurs when cyanobacteria reproduce quickly and form a layer on a lake’s surface. Toxins released from some species of cyanobacteria can irritate the skin or poison pets and wildlife, although state monitors have not found any toxic species of cyanobacteria in Lake Morey.

Kathryn Friedman was concerned that the moratorium may prevent her from changing the envelope of her house on the lake to make it “more accessible for a multi-generational family.” Brimmer assured her that the moratorium contained an exception for ADA accessibility.

Lakeside residents who attended the hearing were also concerned that the moratorium on new construction was not enough.

“You haven’t given any real attention to the real problem of phosphate going into the lake through these failed systems, through inadequate systems, through no system at all other than a pipe, and to focus just on the new building recognizing that each one of those comes with a new septic system is really ignoring the problem,” said Bruce Durgin who lives on the lake and leads the Lake Morey Foundation, a nonprofit which tries to protect the lake and its watershed.

Bill Weale, another lakeside resident, raised various concerns to the Selectboard, including whether the moratorium should take a larger geographic area into account. “The watershed is just as likely, if not more so, to be the biggest contributor to pollution to the lake at this point … I don’t understand why that area isn’t included in the moratorium,” he said.

Weale and Durgin also pointed out that the biggest piece of land near Lake Morey is the town forest. They argued that the Selectboard should address the possibility that erosion from logging is exacerbating the phosphorus problem.

Dan Ludwig, who chairs the town’s Forest Board, said that there “very little evidence of current erosion.” The issue was put to one side as zoning regulations do not hold sway over forest management.

Selectboard members said that the moratorium was only a first step, and that the lake would be a priority in years to come.

Although the moratorium went into effect on Monday, residents can still expect to see some construction on the lake in the coming months. Jeffrey and Linda Miller, who live in New Jersey and own a house on the lake, had filed an application for a conditional use permit before the moratorium went into effect. They applied to demolish the old summer cottage, which has been in Jeffrey Miller’s family for 48 years, and construct a modular vacation home fit for all seasons. The Development Review Board approved the permit on Tuesday.

Brimmer also said that the town might one day consider installing a central wastewater system near Lake Morey to pump waste away from the lake.

“When the last name is ‘LLC,’ I don’t feel bad about (denying a permit),” Brimmer told the board. “They’re not going to be family, seasonal dwellings. They’re going to be Airbnbs.”

Clarification: Fairlee Zoning Administrator Chris Brimmer said at a hearing last month that the town might one day consider installing a central wastewater system near Lake Morey to pump waste away from the lake. An earlier version of this story overstated where the town is in that process. 

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