By Stephanie Choate
A bill intended to improve water quality by limiting development and natural vegetation removal on Vermont’s shorelines will likely not move forward until next year.
The Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Energy considered the bill, passed in the Vermont House in early April, this week. Committee Vice Chair Sen. Diane Snelling of Hinesburg said the committee intends to organize a series of public meetings this summer to speak with landowners, residents and experts regarding shoreline protection options.
“My first goal is to get to clean water and have everyone participate,” Snelling said. “We are very far behind when it comes to shoreline protection.”
“I have always believed that when Vermonters know what the right thing is to do, they will do it,” she said.
Snelling said she has heard from many people that support the bill, but also from many landowners concerned that the bill would infringe on their property rights, and possibly affect their property values.
A mailing sent out to lakefront property owners by a group called Friends of Vermont Shorelines—which Snelling described as “an alarmist approach”—urged landowners to encourage their legislators to defeat the bill.
Attempts to reach a spokesperson for FVS wer unsuccessful as of press time.
Bill H.526 would require a permit from the Agency of Natural Resources for the construction of more than 500 square feet of new impervious surface within 250 feet of the shore. A permit would also be required for clearing an area larger than 500 square feet. The rules would not apply to existing structures.
Rep. Jim McCullough of Williston, who helped draft the bill, cited high phosphorus levels and other pollutants in Lake Champlain and some of Vermont’s 800-plus lakes and ponds as an impetus for the bill.
“This is about getting a handle on that by putting in practices that will, in a natural way, ameliorate those problems,” he said.
McCullough said the original bill started out stronger, but the House committee tried to reduce the impact on property owners after hearing from their constituents.
“There are very strong property rights feelings that I can understand, then there’s another group of people who have very strong beliefs that our state water quality is of tremendous value to the state of Vermont and needs to be protected,” he said.
Under H.526, The Agency of Natural Resources would have two years to develop rules governing the permits. The rules would not apply to towns that have their own lakeshore protection bylaws—towns also have two years to develop bylaws.
Snelling added it is definitely possible that the Senate would opt to make changes to the bill.
On Lake Iroquois, regulations on shoreline development vary. The portion of the lake in Williston requires a 150-foot setback on any new development, while Hinesburg requires a setback of 75 feet.
Planning Director Ken Belliveau said he did not think Williston’s regulations would meet the bill’s requirements, since they do not address vegetation or impervious surfaces. The towns of Williston and Hinesburg have begun looking into an overlay district to create consistency in regulations for the lake.
Among Lake Iroquois landowners, opinions are mixed.
Bob Pasco, president of the Lake Iroquois Association, testified in favor of the bill before the Senate committee recently.
Purely from a water quality standpoint, Pasco and the majority of the association board think the bill would help reduce pollution—though Pasco said the board does not unanimously support it.
“It’s not a strong bill … I think having a bill on the books at least backs up the kind of work that the state and lake organizations are trying to do to keep the water from becoming more polluted.”
Pasco was clear that the Lake Iroquois Association is not a homeowners association and is only concerned with the health of the lake. He said it’s understandable that property owners don’t want their rights infringed upon.
“Yet, the people who are promoting it feel that waterfront property is different in that if you don’t use best practices, you’ll affect everybody on that water body.”
Pasco said Vermont is the only New England state without a shoreline protection law on the books.
“We’re not protecting our water and consequently our lakes and ponds are not in as good a shape as they are in other northern New England states,” he said.
To read the full text of bill H.526, visit http://www.leg.state.vt.us/docs/2014/bills/House/H-526.pdf.