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Editorial: Shoreland bill muddies the waters it means to clean

House Bill 526 provides an object lesson in what’s wrong with the legislative mindset.
The bill, which was recently passed out of the Senate Natural Resources and Energy Committee, seeks to regulate “lake shoreland protection standards.”
The intent of the legislation, like so many other bills, is all well and good. In short, the mission of the legislation is to ensure clean water in our public lakes. No one, literally, no one, is against that premise.
If everyone is on board, why create a costly state apparatus to regulate from Montpelier what could and should be done at the local level? Because when legislators see a problem to solve, their first thought is to draft a bill and put their name on it. From that point forward, the bill becomes overly personal, a badge of honor for those promoting it, while for others it is a pawn in a game of vote trading with legislators making deals to support each others’ pet projects.
But look at the Senate committee’s recently revised draft of H.526: There are now 31 pages of rules and regulations—along with requisite penalties and procedures to enforce violators who may have constructed a garden in an inappropriate place, that will no doubt create needless delay and frustration to satisfy petty rules.
Read almost any section of the legislation and the maze of hoops to comply with is inescapable. For example, check out these simple instructions:
“A person applying for a permit shall provide notice, on a form provided by the Secretary, to the municipal clerk of the municipality in which the construction of impervious surface or creation of cleared area is located at the time the application is filed with the Secretary. The Secretary shall provide an opportunity for written comment regarding whether an application complies with the requirements of this chapter or any rule adopted by the Secretary, for 30 days following receipt of the application.”
What the legislation makes clear is that any significant proposed change in the landscape of a person’s yard within 250 feet of the shoreline will require a permit. The permit goes to the Secretary of Agency of Natural Resources, or that person’s designate. So, for example, if a person living on Lake Dunmore or Monkton Pond or any other water mass greater than 10 acres, wanted to build a stone grill, or a fire pit, down by the lake on his or her property, they would have to file for a permit to the Secretary to see if it’s allowed, file it with the town clerk, and be prepared to write a written justification of why you wanted a nice stone grill to cook your hamburger within 250 feet of the shoreline.
Our immediate thought is: Doesn’t the Secretary of the Agency of Natural Resources have better things to do? But, never mind that aside. The point is that the process is laborious, inefficient and will be, without a doubt, maddening to homeowners.
Furthermore, our bet is that it will be far more costly to manage than legislators have allowed. Considering the number of permits that may be filed, answered and decided (some with inspection teams visiting the site), that could be a lot. Then add the enforcement teams, as well as involvement with the district court to resolve disputes, and there is the potential for hundreds of thousands of added labor costs within the Agency. That’s money, by the way, that takes away from milfoil control on this same lakes, mosquito control to mitigate the spread of the EEE virus, not to mention economic development, food and shelter for the poor, programs to help fight the scourge of drug addiction, or hundreds of other better ways to spend tax dollars.
Is that really what legislators want?
No, it’s not.
What they want is a means to protect the state’s water quality and to ensure it does not get worse. The problem is that the legislative mindset encourages—almost mandates—layers upon layers of lawmaking, rather than first trying to seek simpler solutions.
Consequently, this bill unnecessarily muddies the waters legislators are trying to clean.
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In a letter elsewhere on this page, Matthew Witten of Starksboro, who has spent much of his life monitoring the quality of water in the state’s rivers, has a superior suggestion to reach the state’s objectives, avoid excessive state involvement, and build community consensus to do a far better job of maintaining and enhancing water quality than H.526 could ever hope to accomplish. In a nutshell, he encourages the state to partner with lake associations to accomplish the same high standards in a far more efficient and effective manner. It is an important letter and suggestion that should be circulated statewide.
Hopefully, legislators will read it and take note. It’s not too late in the process to change a bill whose intent is well meaning, but whose implementation will likely shower disdain toward state government for decades because of the Agency’s inevitable ineptitude in carrying out another piece of unwieldy legislation.
Angelo S. Lynn

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