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January 28, 2014

Senate Committee Advances Shoreland Protection Rules

LM-land-katieAfter striking some compromises between environmentalists and property rights advocates, the Senate Natural Resources and Energy Committee unanimously approved legislation on Friday that would tighten the rules governing shoreland development in Vermont. The bill is scheduled to come before the full Senate next week.

Big picture? The proposed rules are designed to improve water quality by limiting clearing and development on the very edges of Vermont's lakes and ponds; keeping shorelands more intact would prevent runoff and maintain critical habitat at the water's edge. Vermont passed some shoreland development rules in the 1970s, but they expired a few years later and were not reinstated. Today, according to the Agency of Natural Resources, Vermont is the only northeastern state without a statewide lakeshore protection rule on the books.

That may be about to change.

The proposed bill — H.526 — would require permits for certain kinds of development within 250 feet of lake and pond shorelines, for bodies of water greater than 10 acres in size. Among other provisions, the legislation would:

  • Require cleared areas or impervious surfaces be located at least 100 feet from the water's edge;
  • Prevent excessive clearing, including clearing on steep slopes; 
  • And maintain "vegetative cover" along the shoreline, intended to prevent erosion and filter runoff.

There are exceptions built in; projects under a certain size won't need permits, and towns can take on the permitting process themselves if they design a system "functionally" similar to the state regs. Landowners would be able to develop a small path to the water's edge, and would be able to clear a small area of land within the buffer zone — for instance, for a shed, gazebo or fire pit. Development of agricultural land does not require a permit within the buffer zone, so long as a farmer adheres to best practices as outlined by the Agency of Agriculture. There are provisions, too, for existing nonconforming lots that are too narrow to allow for the proscribed buffer zone. 

Sound complicated? To a certain extent it is, and that's by design; Sen. Diane Snelling (R-Chittenden), a champion of the shoreland rules, says lawmakers explicitly wanted regulations written into the proposed legislation, rather than tasking ANR to write the rules after the fact. That came in response to concerns they heard during a series of public meetings last summer, when, Snelling says, "many people were very concerned about what kinds of rules ANR would come up with." 

As a result, though, the detailed bill raises issues on the other end of the spectrum. Snelling admits it's "hard to skim," and says she's heard from people already who are anxious about dissecting the complicated, 31-page piece of legislation. 

The bill heads next to the Senate Finance Committee, because the permits would be funded by a fee of 50 cents per square foot of impervious or cleared surface. That's the final stop on its way to the full Senate. 

Environmental advocates are cautiously optimistic about how the bill is shaping up. Anthony Iarrapino, a senior attorney with the Conservation Law Foundation, has been following the shoreland development legislation closely since it was first taken up in the House last year. He says the current bill is an improvement over what came out of the House, and commended legislators for taking the time over the summer to educate Vermonters, and absorb their concerns and criticisms. 

"Sometimes a summer study is a way to make an issue go away, or to just have everybody get tired of it and hope it goes away," says Iarrapino, who admits he was skeptical about the additional scrutiny the legislation received over the summer months. But in this case, he says, the extra time and attention may have paid off.  

There are, however, points of contention. Iarrapino and Jake Brown, of the Vermont Natural Resources Council, are both worried about how much land is carved out in the 100-foot shoreland buffer for development. 

Another big one? As passed out of committee, the bill has a start date of July 1. That's fairly typical for legislation, but environmental advocates say it could mean some Vermonters would scramble to preemptively clear their land, and earn "grandfathered" status before the regulations take effect. (This was a concern when shoreland regs didn't pass last year, and as Seven Days reported in December, a few cases of drastic shoreland clearing around Vermont may have been attributable to the looming legislation.) Iarrapino, as well as Jake Brown of Vermont Natural Resources Council, both want to see the bill take effect immediately if passed by the legislature and signed by the governor — before, as Iarrapino says, people "[get] out the bulldozers and the chainsaws in advance of July 1." 

Snelling acknowledges that the July 1 start date is less than ideal, but says she's optimistic that Vermonters want to follow the rules — and won't rush, en masse, to develop their properties before the law takes effect. "The more everybody knows what the right thing is, it becomes more obvious who isn’t doing it," says Snelling. "If you know what you’re supposed to do, and it’s not something hard, why wouldn’t you do it?"

"If this legislation passes in this form, it will definitely protect lakes and ponds, shoreland habitat, and clean water, and that’s what it’s supposed to do," says Snelling. 

That's still an "if," though. Iarrapino says that after several weeks of compromise between environmentalists and property rights advocates — whose torch was carried in committee by Sen. John Rodgers (D-Essex/Orleans) — it might be time to draw a line in the sand.

"We’re really at the point where we cannot afford to make too many more compromises," says the CLF lawyer. "We’ve got some good protections in the bill, but if they’re weakened further, it will be difficult for us to continue to support the legislation." 

Image of shoreland clearing on Sunset Lake by Kathryn Flagg.

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