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Vermont Legislature
Follow VPR's statehouse coverage, featuring Pete Hirschfeld and Bob Kinzel in our Statehouse Bureau in Montpelier.

New Restrictions Eyed On Shoreland Development

A clearcut on Sunrise Lake in Rutland County.

Lawmakers are again seeking new environmental protections for the more than 200 lakes and ponds scattered across Vermont. But, as was the case last year, the push for shorelands legislation is running into resistance from some waterfront property owners.

If real estate is all about location, location, location, then so too is the push in Montpelier this year for a bill that would restrict development on the shores of lakes and ponds. The 100-foot swath of land surrounding fresh bodies of water is of particular concern to environmentalists. And they say that if Vermont wants to keeps its lakes beautiful, then it needs to clamp down on shore line development.

“Shoreland protection is not just about helping us restore those waters that have become badly degraded, like Lake Champlain, its value is perhaps greatest in the smaller lakes and ponds where it can preserve pristine water quality where we still have it,” said Anthony Iarrapino, clean water advocate for the Conservation Law Foundation

The Shumlin Administration has unveiled new language that it says would deliver the kinds of protections Iarrapino and others are seeking. David Mears, commissioner of the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation, said the shorelands bill is part of a boarder effort to repair and preserve watersheds that play such a key role in the economic and environmental health of the state.

“The whole purpose of it is to protect these systems for the public uses that we make of them, whether it’s swimming, fishing, recreation, also the economic benefits that are associated with property values of the people who live around these ponds,” Mears said.

Mears’ department has added some regulatory teeth to a bill passed by the House last year that was criticized for being too vague and ambiguous. For example, anyone wanting to build on a footprint of more than 100 square feet, within 100 feet of the water line, would have to seek a permit. And the language specifies which types of parcels would be subject to the most oversight – those with slopes of greater than 20 percent, and on which more than 40 percent of the square footage has already been turned into a building or driveway.

The House-passed bill didn’t stipulate precisely what kinds of development would be subject to the permitting process, and instead directed the Agency of Natural Resources to use its rulemaking authority to come up with the specifics. The state convened a series of public hearings over the summer and fall to collect input on the House bill. Mears said the latest version of the bill reflects the concerns citizens voiced during those hearings.

Mears said the new language will apply heavy scrutiny to significant new development without subjecting existing property owners to undue regulatory hardships.

“We’ve tried to design something so that the smallest number of projects would have to go through actual individual permitting as possible,” Mears said.

But Steve McLeod, a lobbyist for a coalition that includes farmers, foresters and lake associations, said the bill tries to impose new rules on communities that aren’t necessarily doing anything wrong. The proposed regulations heavily restrict construction of, or additions to, camps located within 100 feet of the water. And the bill also limits the number of trees residents can clear to improve their views.

“The lake associations make the point that the legislation … won’t really accomplish much and will be a substantial and excessive interference with the ability to use their lake front properties,” McLeod said.

He said most of the waterfront parcels in the state are 100-foot by 100-foot subdivisions, and would therefore fall under strict harsh oversight.

In writing the legislation, McLeod said lawmakers and administration officials are taking on a task better left to local zoning boards.

“One size does not fit all,” McLeod said. “Lake Champlain is a very different water body from Maidstone Lake.”

Iarrapino, though, said the science governing the proposal is irrefutable.

“One size does not fit all is a good sound bite for opponents,” Iarrapino said. “But I think you have heard from people who are trained in science, from people who are paid with taxpayer dollars to study the different effects of buffers on our lakes and ponds in Vermont that actually 100 feet may not be enough in some situations.”

The bill looks to have majority support in the Senate Committee on Natural Resources, where some members will try to amend provisions, including one that assesses a $500 permit fee on landowners seeking shorelands permits. The money would be used to cover the additional staff positions the Agency of Natural Resources would need to administer the new permitting program. Opponents of the provision say residents with waterfront property shouldn’t have to subsidize a preservation initiative that will benefit the entire state.

The legislation would also try to strengthen enforcement of the state’s invasive species laws by allowing state police, town police officers and sheriffs to ticket boaters and fisherman for transporting zebra mussels, milfoil or other invasive plants and animals.

Current law grants ticketing authority only to the Agency of Natural Resources.

The Vermont Statehouse is often called the people’s house. I am your eyes and ears there. I keep a close eye on how legislation could affect your life; I also regularly speak to the people who write that legislation.
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