Uncertain future seen for shoreland, water quality bills
MONTPELIER — The Vermont Legislature is currently debating two bills aimed at protecting the state’s waterways. One seeks to regulate shoreline development while the other hopes to reduce the amount of phosphorus dumped into Lake Champlain and other waterways.
The shorelands bill, H.526, would set standards for development of Vermont’s lakes and watersheds.
The bill creates a 100-foot zone extending from the shoreline, in which there would be special regulations for construction. For example, it would mandate that no more than 40 percent of this protected area could be cleared of natural vegetation. This provision would prevent landowners from clearing a wooded area and replacing it with a manicured lawn that extended to the water’s edge.
The bill also includes limits on building on steep slopes in an effort to curb erosion. The legislation would only apply to new development, and thus would not force landowners to re-vegetate land that has already been cleared.
The House and Senate have passed different versions of shorelands bills. Now, a conference committee, consisting of members of both chambers, is tasked with smoothing out the differences between the bills. When one bill emerges from the conference committee, both the House and Senate must give it the OK before it can be sent to Gov. Peter Shumlin.
Rep. Will Stevens, I-Shoreham, voted against the shorelands bill because he said many of the things it seeks to accomplish could be done by simply enforcing existing regulations.
“The Agency of Natural Resources can tighten wastewater regulations and do more inspections,” Stevens said. “Things in place aren’t being done. Why create new bureaucracy that will cost property owners money?”
Stevens said some of his constituents who live on Lake Champlain feel they would be getting a raw deal should the bill be passed.
“I’ve got three lake towns affected by this, and there are folks who believe that limits on use without a corresponding tax decrease isn’t fair,” Stevens said.
Bill Moore, a lobbyist for the Vermont Farm Bureau, said the organization believes the bill is not necessary, as permitting processes already exist on the local level.
“We always feel that the local zoning and local permit process is more responsive for Vermonters,” Moore said. “We reminded legislators that municipalities already have the authority to develop their own protection zones.”
Although the bureau does not think the legislation is needed, Moore helped negotiate exemptions for farmers who are following accepted agricultural practices that were adopted by the state two decades ago.
“The bill is well-intended to protect against shoreline erosion and ensure habitat restoration,” Moore said. “Those are both laudable goals, but our agricultural conformance to the Clean Water Act is already embedded in the accepted agricultural practices.”
But Fish, Wildlife and Water Resources Committee chairman David Deen, D-Westminster, supports the bill.
“It’s a first step, in terms of protecting lakes,” Deen said. “We’re expecting more pressure on lakeside development and want to make sure, going forward into the future, that it protects water quality and near shore habitat.”
Deen said the legislation is modeled after similar shorelands protection legislation passed in Maine and New Hampshire in recent decades. Deen owns a camp on a lake in New Hampshire, and said that state’s shoreland regulations haven’t interfered with the quality of life, and neither will the Vermont bill.
“I think it’s minimally intrusive in terms of land use,” Deen said, adding the bill has a “good to excellent” chance of reaching Gov. Shumlin’s desk by the end of the session.
WATER QUALITY BILL
The water quality bill, H.586, aims to establish new funding and regulatory mechanisms to cut down on the amount of phosphorus dumped into Lake Champlain.
Phosphorus causes algae to grow at a rate that is faster than ecosystems can handle. These “algae blooms” diminish water quality and decrease the amount of oxygen in waterways that fish and other species require. Drinking water contaminated by algae blooms can also be harmful to human health.
The federal Environmental Protection Agency has ordered the state to amend its Total Maximum Daily Load standard, or the amount of phosphorus that is permitted to be dumped daily into waterways, because Vermont’s standard violated the Clean Water Act.
These new TMDL standards would not just affect Lake Champlain, but also Lake Memphremagog and the Connecticut River.
The water quality bill would also regulate when and where manure and pesticides could be spread. For example, the bill would ban pesticide from being spread within 50 feet of surface water or a culvert.
Special rules would govern when manure could be spread between Dec. 15 and April 1. The ground is often frozen during this period, which makes it more likely that manure will not penetrate the soil, and thus end up in a waterway.
In addition, the legislation would mandate that farmers build fences by 2019 to prevent livestock from entering state waters. The state would offer farmers financial aid to help pay for those fences.
The Agency of Natural Resources in 2013 estimated it would take $156 million over 10 years to clean up the state’s waterways.
The new bill would fund a portion of this sum by raising taxes on rooms, meals and alcohol by a quarter of a percent, and by 1 percent on car rental taxes. This would raise about $4 million, and legislators have said they hope the USDA would contribute the rest of the funding.
The state Department of Environmental Conservation sent a new TMDL plan to the EPA on March 31, a day before the April 1 deadline. The EPA previously rejected Vermont’s water quality plan in 2011.
The water quality bill passed through the House Fish, Wildlife and Water Resources Committee and Agriculture Committee and now is being debated by the Ways and Means Committee. If the bill survives that committee, it will be advance to the House floor for debate.
Moore characterized the water quality proposal as an “agricultural regulation bill,” and said that the Vermont Farm Bureau opposes the legislation.
“We’re opposing most of it for two reasons. Most of those pieces are already law or under the authority of the agriculture department,” Moore said. “Second, the agency doesn’t have the staff to implement them to the smallest farms.”
Moore said that Agency of Agriculture officials, like Sec. Chuck Ross, have told the Legislature that the department simply does not have the staff to enforce existing regulations. However, Moore said, the proposed bill and its subsequent amendments did nothing to address these concerns.
“The bill backed off on some of the more difficult regulatory things, and added taxes to cover a certain number of added employees,” Moore said. “That didn’t do anything to the existing understaffing issue.”
Moore said that the most important thing the Farm Bureau, Agency of Agriculture and Legislature can do right now is educate small farmers on the accepted agricultural practices (AAPs) adopted in the 1990s. Moore said the bureau printed the AAPs in a 19-page booklet to hand out to farmers, many of whom he said were unaware of the regulations.
“We don’t have enough agriculture staff to show small farmers what the AAPs are about or to offer technical or financial assistance,” Moore said. “They don’t have enough staff to even scratch away at the 6,000 to 7,000 small farmers.”
Deen said the bill does address both the need to educate farmers on the AAPs and the staffing needs of the Agency of Agriculture.
“We’re not going to ask the agency to do things in which they do not have the staffing capacity,” Deen said. “We’ll have a small farm certification program, and two to three more people on the ground to work with small farmers, to see them comply with the AAPs.”
FAR FROM CERTAIN
Stevens said he is not confident either bill will become law before the end of the end of the legislative session next month.
Stevens said that the new taxes proposed to fund waterway cleanup were likely to find an enemy in Gov. Shumlin, who has said he opposes raising broad-based taxes.
“I don’t think Ways and Means or the administration is happy with the new taxes,” Stevens said.
Deen said the water quality bill is “more problematic” in terms of hopes for passage.
“The administration is resisting any of the revenue sources,” Deen said.
Moore agreed that the Legislature and governor have little appetite for raising taxes on Vermonters, especially during difficult economic times.
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