Bill to establish buffer along lakes, rivers sidelined

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(Host) The Vermont House today waged a contentious debate about water pollution and property rights.

The bill would require landowners to leave an undeveloped buffer strip along lakes and streams.

But after hours of wrangling, Democratic leaders shelved the bill after watching support slip away.

VPR’s John Dillon reports:

(Dillon) The bill sounded simple.

In order to prevent pollution from washing into waterways, the legislation requires a 50-foot buffer strip along many rivers and lakes. Advocates pointed out that New Hampshire and Maine have similar water protection laws.

But as the debate stretched toward the third hour, the buffer strip bill got mired in the quicksand of controversy.

Minority Leader Steve Adams wondered if the bill was a backdoor to regulation that he said would restrict property rights.

(Adams) "This bill is simply no more than statewide zoning. … Call it government taking of private property without fair compensation. Call it a government land grab, whatever you want. Madame Speaker, I urge the body to vote no.”

(Dillon) Representative David Deen is chairman of the Fish, Wildlife and Water Resources Committee.

Deen tried to rebut the property rights argument. He explained that the bill allows towns to authorize uses of land within the buffer zones. He said the legislation exempts existing uses, and that agriculture is covered under a separate program. And, Deen said, buffer strips help keep water clean.

(Deen) “The areas in question – the riparian buffers – are some of the most valuable natural resources for the protection of our waters, and that the potential exists for uncoordinated, unplanned, and piecemeal development in these unusually effective pollution prevention areas along our waters.”

(Dillon) But critics, like Castleton Republican Robert Helm, said the bill was a simple case of government over-regulation. He said camp owners along Lake Bomoseen in his district already take steps to keep the lake clean.

(Helm) “I don’t think they need to be told that you can’t move within a 50-foot distance of the lake, don’t cut a tree down, don’t do anything there. They don’t need to be told that.”

(Dillon) Many Republicans were opposed to the bill. And with support eroding among Democrats, leaders pulled the bill. Deen said he may try to bring the measure back for debate on Thursday.

He said the bill may be amended so that the buffer strips only apply to larger rivers in the state.

For VPR News, I’m John Dillon in Montpelier.


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