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Lawmakers get an earful from citizens on shoreline bill, soda taxes

BRIDPORT — Lawmakers and several dozen Addison County citizens gathered at the Bridport Community Hall for a legislative lunch on agricultural issues, but the hot-button issues discussed over the meal were not directly related to agriculture.
Rather, citizens in attendance wanted to pick legislators’ brains over a controversial shoreline conservation bill, H.526, which netted statewide attention after clearing the House late last week, and over a tax package that would lift the tax exemption on items including bottled water, soda, candy and dietary supplements.
The final version of the House Bill H.526 got rid of an initial construction ban up to 100 feet from the shoreline, but kept a clause requiring permits for any construction between 100 to 250 feet from the shoreline. Perhaps most contentiously, the bill handed over the specifics of that permitting process to the Agency of Natural Resources.
“I voted against it,” Rep. Will Stevens, I-Shoreham, told those gathered in Bridport on Monday. “That’s no way to legislate.”
Bridport residents and others voiced concern that the bill would adversely affect property values and interfere with day-to-day home improvements and construction. Bridport has seven miles of Lake Champlain shoreline.
“That 250-foot setback takes in my driveway,” said Bridport resident Bill Keyes. “So I guess I’m gonna break some laws. I’m going to mow my lawn and cut down a tree if need be … and at 84 years old you won’t convince me otherwise. It’s my property yet. It’s old family property.”
Several people also expressed concern about a clause in the bill that protected the shoreline according to “the greatest public good,” which some considered vague language.
“It seems to me the state is overstepping its bounds,” said Adam Broughton, also of Bridport. “We know how to take care of the shoreline better than you do.”
Rep. Diane Lanpher, D-Vergennes, reiterated that all lawmakers at the meeting broadly support measures designed to protect the lake and clean water, though she heard and understood those concerns.
“There’s also an economic impact,” Lanpher said, citing a week last summer when pollution from phosphorous runoff caused many Lake Champlain beaches to be shut down for a week, putting homeowners who rely on summer rentals in a perilous situation in years to come.
Rep. Harvey Smith, R-New Haven, encouraged those concerned to put pressure on their state senators, who will likely make adjustments to the bill that cleared the House before a final incarnation hits the governor’s desk.
Still, Keyes and others seemed less than reassured by the prospect of relying on other lawmakers.
“I don’t know who dreamed up that law,” Keyes said. “Probably someone who lives atop a mountain and never sees Lake Champlain. But I think we ought to have a course, probably a six-week course, for legislators and the president and everyone on common sense. It’d take that much time to sink in.”
Corey Pratt, whose family owns Pratt’s Store in Bridport, expressed concern about the tax package that passed in the House last week. It would charge sales tax on items previously exempt like candy, soda and bottled water.
Aside from expressing concern that the new taxes would drive business across the lake to New York, Pratt said the new measures would be confusing to his employees. He also saw the bill as symptomatic of larger issues.
“My concern is that there’s a greater obesity in this state than people who partake in candy, or any sugar items,” Pratt told those gathered at the meeting. “And that is the budget. I think there’s a lot more places that instead of taxing us more, we could be more fiscally responsible — to curb what money we’re spending before we try to take it off the backs of (all the items) that we’re taxing.”
Rep. Dave Sharpe, D-Bristol, clarified that the bill did not increase taxes but rather removed an existing tax exemption.
Joe Gleason of Bridport brought up the issue of wheat, which he believed had more adverse health impacts than sugar products.
At the close of the robust luncheon, Addison County Sen. Chris Bray, a Democrat, said that while legislators often found themselves in the “hot seat” at meetings like this, he encouraged all citizens to be actively in touch with their representatives on the issues that matter to them.
“(It’s these) stories from home … that help shape legislation,” Bray said.

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