BRIDPORT — Health care reform, education financing and budget matters are making most of the headlines in the Vermont Statehouse these days, but Addison County residents reminded lawmakers on Monday of another issue they will follow intently this legislative session: A proposed law that would regulate the manner in which shoreland properties can be developed.
“This would have been a wonderful bill back in 1950,” said Bridport resident Ed Payne on Monday morning at the Legislative Breakfast at the Bridport Grange Hall. “But the shoreline is built up, and now we are playing catch-up.”
The House last session voted 105-42 to pass H.526, the controversial Shorelands Protection Bill that would among other things require that a property owner obtain a permit from the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources (ANR) prior to new construction within 250 feet of a major pond or lake as a means of stemming soil erosion along waterways.
But last spring the Senate tabled action on the bill in order to gain more feedback from Vermonters. A Shoreland Protection Commission held meetings throughout the state — including Middlebury — this past summer to answer questions and gauge public sentiment on the legislation, which has received applause from environmentalists but has been excoriated by some lakeshore property owners who fear the bill would limit their ability to develop or sell their land.
The Senate has drafted its version of H.526 that is spurring new controversy among some property owners. The bill calls for affected landowners to, among other things, maintain a “buffer strip of vegetation” within 75 feet of a lake, and that all new structures be set back at least 75 feet. The bill prescribes a point system based on the diameter of trees located within the vegetation buffer strip. Landowners with heftier buffer strips may pare down that vegetation to a point where it conforms to a minimum number of points decided upon by the state.
Some participants at Monday’s season-opening Legislative Breakfast in Bridport objected to the proposed shoreland rules, calling them unnecessary and an infringement on private property rights.
“It seems like a rather draconian thing,” Payne said of the shorelands legislation.
Rep. Warren Van Wyck, R-Ferrisburgh, said he did not vote for H.526 in the House and is not liking the Senate version, thus far.
He called the Senate version “a bureaucrat’s dream” that could foist a “huge burden” on property owners.
Van Wyck added he was not a fan of the manner in which the shorelands commission conducted its public meetings last year. He noted the panel merely accepted written questions from audience members and did not permit public debate.
“If you’re a (shoreland) property owner, you’re not in favor of this,” he said.
Bridport resident Bill Keyes — who owns property on the shores of Lake Champlain — said he will continue to tend to his property as he sees fit and he is prepared to suffer the consequences.
“Arrest me,” he promised to tell state officials who might seek to punish him for his actions. And as a prison inmate, he said he’d request dental care, “an over-stuffed chair” and a TV.
“It will cost you more than telling me how to keep my property,” he told legislators.
Addison resident Mark Boivin questioned the constitutionality of the legislation and the science that is being used to justify it.
“The problem is, this (bill) is not based on science, it is based on politics,” Boivin said.
Rep. Willem Jewett, D-Ripton, was a member of the Shoreland Protection Commission. Jewett — who also serves as House majority leader — acknowledged being “uncomfortable” with the commission’s meeting format that excluded public debate. Jewett added he is not sure whether the Senate version of the shorelands bill has captured the right balance of environmental protection and respect for property rights. But he said that Vermont — like other New England states — should do something to protect its shorelands, which officials argued are degrading under increased development.
“Let’s face it, when we live in this environment, we impact it in some way,” Jewett said.
Sen. Chris Bray, D-New Haven, said the shorelands bill must strike a delicate balance. But he added recent years have brought more intense development pressures on shorelands property. Many of the seasonal rustic camps surrounding lakes have evolved into intensively used, year-round homes, he said.
“The bill that has been put forward is still being adjusted,” Bray said. “There has been a lot of input, and there will be more.”
Salisbury resident Heidi Willis, a member of the Addison County Riverwatch Collaborative, urged lawmakers to pass shorelands legislation.
“Our lakes are already significantly degraded compared to other lakes in New England,” she said. “Do we want to wait?”
Jewett served notice that the Shorelands Protection Bill is not the only environmental bill that will stir some controversy this session. He referenced bill H.586, which seeks to regulate the manner in which pollutants can get into the state’s waterways. That bill, introduced by the House Fish, Wildlife and Water Resources Committee, calls for such things as:
• Livestock to be fenced in from entering state waters, beginning Jan. 1, 2019.
• The Secretary of Agriculture, Food and Markets to adopt rules regulating when manure may be spread during the winter.
• Farmers and custom fertilizer applicators to complete annual water quality training.
• The Secretary of Natural Resources to permit discharges of regulated storm water runoff from a development, redevelopment or expansion of an impervious surface greater than half an acre.
Other discussion at Monday’s breakfast focused on a proposed natural gas pipeline in Addison County (see related story), a proposed GMO labeling law, the state’s growing opiate addiction problem, and efforts to weatherize homes in the Green Mountain State.
The next Legislative Breakfast, sponsored by the Bridport Grange and Addison County Farm Bureau, will be held at the Whiting Town Hall on Monday, Feb. 10, at 7 a.m.
Reporter John Flowers is at firstname.lastname@example.org.