SHOREHAM — Some lakeshore property owners on Monday urged the county’s two state senators to reject a bill that would set up a new regulatory hurdle for people seeking to develop property within 250 feet of lakes or ponds with more than 10 acres of surface area.
The so-called shorelands protection bill (H.526), passed by the House late last month by a 105-42 tally, would require that a permit be obtained from the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources (ANR) prior to new construction within 250 feet of a major pond or lake. The bill allows for permitting to be delegated to the towns provided they have adopted state-approved shoreland protection bylaws by Jan. 1, 2015.
Proponents believe H.526 is needed to preserve vegetation and trees that they say are key in helping maintain water quality and stemming runoff of yard chemicals and other harmful substances into waterways.
Opponents complain the bill represents an unreasonable infringement on their property rights.
“We would like to keep decisions at the local level,” Orwell Selectwoman and Sunset Lake resident Carla Ochs said of the new state permitting requirement proposed in H.526. She fears the bill sets up a “one-size-fits-all” permitting approach to lakeshore development.
“I really think you need to make room for the towns, with their zoning, to work on it,” said Ochs at a Legislative Breakfast in Shoreham. She added her belief that Orwell’s zoning laws provide adequate protections.
“I want to urge (our senators) to consider that we can do this on a local level,” Ochs said.
Ferrisburgh resident Brian Goodyear called H.526 “a really bad bill.” He specifically cited a lack of funding to implement mandates of the bill and said the ANR is already understaffed. Goodyear argued that towns are already doing a good job of policing development along their shorelines. He said he is concerned with the speed at which the Legislature is looking to field H.526.
“This thing has been on a fast track since Feb. 18, with very little notification of what it is going to be doing,” Goodyear said. “Every day, we hear from another town that says, ‘What? We had no idea about this.’”
Goodyear predicts that if H.526 becomes law, towns will face many property valuation adjustment requests from shorefront property owners convinced that their real estate has been devalued.
“It’s going to cost the towns a lot of money in order to fight those amendments,” Goodyear said.
Shoreham resident Jean Waite said her family owns a quarter-acre lot with a made-over camp, part of which went into the lake a few years ago. The Waite family took great pains in restoring the property in accordance with state and local laws.
“As I understand it, I don’t think we could have put our place together again under these rules,” Waite said.
She added lawmakers must listen more intently to lakeshore property owners who would be dramatically affected by the new law.
“We have been ignored,” she said.
Sens. Claire Ayer, D-Addison, and Chris Bray, D-New Haven, listened intently to the feedback delivered at Monday’s legislative breakfast in Shoreham — which has considerable frontage on Lake Champlain.
Ayer is a former member of the Senate Natural Resources and Energy Committee, and she and her family live in a home on the shores of Lake Champlain in Addison. Her home is located within the 250-foot protection area that is being targeted by H.526.
Ayer said she has noticed a substantial decline in the water quality of Lake Champlain during the past three decades. She added she could not let her grandchild swim in the water last summer over fears of blue-green algae in the lake.
“We can’t pretend that there’s nothing going on in the lake and we can’t pretend that lakeshore owners don’t contribute to it,” Ayer said.
She lamented the practice of people clearing as many trees as possible around the lake to enhance their views, and the resulting runoff that the clear cutting can cause.
“Our entire house — our driveway — is in the lakeshore protection area, so I do have a lot of questions,” Ayer said. “But I support cleaning up the lake. That is going to be a great investment in my property values.”
Ayer said she hopes she and her colleagues can make H.526 “a bill that makes sense. In Addison, you can do anything you want on the lake. We don’t have planning or land use regulations that really do much or say much.
“(H.526) affects me directly, but it also affects a very important economic resource in this state,” Ayer said. “Lake Champlain brings in hundreds of millions of dollars in tourism … We need to take better care of it, and it is in a bad way right now.”
Bray promised to look carefully at H.526. He said boosting the water quality of lakes will depend on cooperation between several entities.
“Really, it’s a three-legged stool between homes, farms and municipalities, and you have to have all three partners working together,” Bray said. “It’s important to work out the details so the collaboration is a productive one.”
Bray read from the state Constitution, specifying a passage indicating that “private property ought to be subservient to public use,” while at the same time providing compensation to people whose property rights are affected by public policy.
“All of us are part of one connected environment, and we have to have good stewardship practices, and that means bending some of our private desires to do things when those have a negative impact on a public resource, like water,” Bray said.
Rep. Willem Jewett, D-Ripton, is House majority leader and also a member of the House Fish, Wildlife and Water Resources Committee that voted H.526 out by an 8-1 tally. He said a majority of the panel agreed that the state’s shorelands should be better protected, but also reasoned that towns should be allowed to lead the effort. It is for that reason that the bill includes the option for towns to develop their own shoreland protection bylaws by Jan. 1 of 2015, according to Jewett.
“We agree there should be local control and the bill has been changed to allow for that,” Jewett said. “We like to think in the House that we stand strongly behind our position.”
Rep. Betty Nuovo, D-Middlebury, is a member of the House Natural Resources and Energy Committee. She applauded the environmental aspects of H.526, particularly its emphasis on maintaining vegetation to prevent bad substances from getting into the lakes. Nuovo pointed to state statistics indicating that a 100-foot vegetated buffer absorbs 73 percent of runoff, while a lawn only absorbs 18 percent. Those statistics also suggest that a cleared shoreline is subject to 18 times more sediment, five times more runoff and seven times more phosphorous contamination than a shoreline with trees and vegetation.
“People are putting all kinds of things on their lawns to make them grow better, and that gets into your lake,” Nuovo said. “If you have enough people around the lake doing that, you ruin the lake.”
Municipal officials will continue to watch the ongoing legislative debate on H.526. And right now, many of those officials aren’t very happy.
“As an individual, it troubles me that the state is taking over such a huge project and adding a new level of bureaucracy and completely leaving out the towns,” said Ferrisburgh Zoning Board Chairwoman Charlene Stavenow.
“We have good zoning regulations in Ferrisburgh,” she added. “It seems to me that people living on the lake love it and cherish it and do not commit waste. I feel strongly that the rules should be left in control of the towns.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].