Pollution, Property Rights At Issue In Lakeshore Bill

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A House committee will hold a hearing next week on a bill that calls for new protections for the shorelines of lakes and ponds.

The measure requires lakeshore buffer zones for new development to prevent polluting run-off. But some property owners are concerned that the bill would infringe on their property rights.

Westminster Democrat David Deen chairs the House, Fish, Wildlife and Water Resources Committee. The veteran legislator worked on the bill with the Shumlin Administration. But Deen said the legislation is now being re-written to reflect the concerns of property owners.

"I don’t think we’re going to give up on the notion behind the bill. But we’re going to soften it. It will be a much lighter touch in terms of what people … can or can’t do on their property," he said.

According to Deen, the basic idea of the legislation is to use nature’s own pollution controls to protect water quality. He says trees and shrubs along the shoreline shed leaves and twigs that work to slow down and filter polluting run-off.

"As water comes down after a rain event, it’s absorbed there. So the phosphorus stays out of the water, if you’re talking Lake Champlain," he said. "And sediment that’s washing off the land stays there in that undisturbed vegetated zone."

Deen said both Maine and New Hampshire have strong lakeshore protections laws. The Vermont bill in its current draft says the Agency of Natural Resources will write new rules requiring buffer zones along the shoreline for new development.

Environmental Conservation Commissioner David Mears said existing camps and cottages would be exempted.

"What they call non-conforming uses would be left alone, for now. Although if someone were going to make a substantial change in their property that might trigger a requirement for putting in place some additional vegetation," he said. "But that’s one of the issues, frankly, that the Legislature will need to wrestle through. Our proposal is still being developed. The main thing is to make sure we don’t make the problem worse."

The problem, Mears said, is a lakeshore construction boom with new lots that are cleared right to the water’s edge. That allows run-off to flow right off manicured lawns and into the lake.

But some lakeshore camp owners don’t like the idea of new state regulation. Jamie Longtin is president of an association that represents camp owners on Sunrise, Sunset and Perch Lakes in Rutland County. He wants the state to crack down on pollution from existing sources, such as a dirt road that routinely washes silt into Sunset Lake. Longtin said the proposed bill could restrict property rights.

"As far as I look at it, it’s a taking of your land. And the Constitution, Article 2 of the Constitution of Vermont, describes taking of your land as when the government asserts control over your property. And I think we view this as a taking by the state," he said.

Deen, the bill’s lead sponsor, said Vermont law has long recognized that property rights do not include the freedom to pollute public waters.

"Your rights end right at the end of my nose," he said. "And it’s like any other public trust resource, whether it’s air or water. You don’t have the right to pollute my water."

Still, Deen said he’s heard the criticisms. He said the new bill will be tailored to allow a more site-by-site review of projects, rather that mandating a specific distance for a lakeshore buffer zone.

Deen said the new draft should be available for the public to review at a hearing set for Tuesday evening at the Statehouse.


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