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Editorial: Shorelands Protection Bill — A matter of public trust

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Posted on September 23, 2013 |
By Angelo S. Lynn



To understand Vermonters’ concerns with the proposed shoreline protection bill, H.526 as passed by the House this past session, you have to answer just one question: Do you trust the Agency of Natural Resources to create the rules and administer it in a way that doesn’t create an unreasonable burden?

To most shoreline homeowners the answer is no.

That has been demonstrated at each of the four public meetings that have been held throughout the state by the Shoreland Protection Commission. More public hearings are planned.

We applaud the Legislature for establishing the commission to seek the public’s input — although it was done belatedly and only after public outcry in the aftermath of House passage of the bill. But we question the commission’s changed format (see story, Page 1) that now only allows written questions that the panel answers to clarify the intent of the law. No public comments are allowed. The commission moved to that format because in earlier hearings they received too many opposing arguments and commission members said they didn’t feel as if the public left learning anything — despite starting each public hearing with a 45-minute presentation to explain the proposal.

Peel that onion back a layer and the motive is obvious: In the commission’s mind, these public hearings are not so much to ascertain ifVermonters think the proposal is sound, as it is to learn how they might tweak the proposal to ensure it passes.

That is obvious by some of the statements ANR officials and commission members present when they champion— like good salespeople — the proposed law’s benefits. Here’s an example:

• Maine and evenNew Hampshire have had a similar law since the 1970s and “property values along lake shores in both states have increased in value!” No kidding. They have in Vermont, too. Probably Kansas as well. Property values have gone up in the past 40 years almost everywhere.

And then there is this trumped up charge to justify pushing the bill along:

• Act 110 is a bill passed in 2010 that offered towns technical assistance and grants to create their own shoreline protection ordinances or bylaws. Of the 173 towns that have lakes or ponds over 10 acres, only 42 have implemented local shoreline protection laws.

Sounds terrible, right? It’s meant to. But really it’s not so bad. Town plans are updated every five years. It’s a laborious process that towns spend several years to study and implement. No doubt many towns are in the midst of incorporating this new state initiative, but just don’t have it completed. That almost 25 percent of the towns have done it in less than three years is pretty good considering there was no state mandate.

Finally, the real snake oil in this whole initiative is that it’s a crisis that has to be addressed immediately.

It is not, and does not. Lake Champlain has a pressing problem but addressing farm run-off and river pollution has a far bigger impact. The relatively small impact this measure will have on lake water quality needs to be quantified and put in perspective. The ANR and this Shoreland Protection Commission want to project “shoreland pollution” as a crisis to justify their effort, but in many of the smaller lakes, there are bigger fish to fry. Consider this one example:

• The state cut more than $50,000 out of the milfoil eradication funding for just Lake Dunmore in this past year. Ask anyone familiar with Lake Dunmore as to what is the bigger threat to water quality — run-off or milfoil — and the unanimous answer will be milfoil. The simple fact is that if milfoil consumes the lake, you’ve lost the lake to public recreation and land values plummet. Yet, the state is taking money away from the milfoil funding and creating another program of lesser value to monitor.

Proponents will argue that the bill does not take any money away from anything else, but rather fees on those affected landowners will cover expenses. The estimate is that four to five full-time employees (figure a minimum of $60,000 each with benefits) will be added to the state payroll. But if fees don’t cover the expenses, you can bet those employees won’t be let go, but, as bureaucracies go, they’ll find new ways to enforce things that require fees to pay their salaries — or the funding will be found.

That’s just the nature of government.

And, generally, I’m OK with that. I’m not anti-government. I belong to the liberal side of politics that believes government works best when it identifies a public good that is being neglected and steps in to solve a problem.

And that is the legislation’s strength. The intent is good. We all want the best water quality feasible. But is the ANR to be trusted?

Here’s a suggestion for the Commission and the ANR: Invite a dozen contractors to share their stories about costs associated with ANR rules and regulations. Ask them if the agency runs things efficiently or effectively.

Then, before the Senate takes up the bill this coming session, report what you hear and answer why the public doesn’t trust the ANR. If the commission would address that problem, they’d find support for this legislation.

Angelo S. Lynn

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