Shoreland law seen as aiding lakes and residents
FERRISBURGH — Addison County lakefront property owners have been skeptical about Vermont’s Shoreland Protection Act, which became law in July 2014.
For example, at a February 2014 legislative breakfast in Bridport several attendees panned draft versions of the bill, and some local lawmakers also came out against it during the legislative process.
But at least according to some of those who enforce or support the law — which restricts how close homes and other improvements may be built to many lakes and ponds, how much waterfront land can be cleared, and how much of waterfront lots can be covered with man-made surfaces that do not absorb water — the reality in the past year is that it is more user-friendly than critics expected.
On this past Monday, about two dozen lakefront property owners gathered at Ferrisburgh’s Kingsland Bay State Park to learn more about the Shoreland Protection Act from Misha Cetner, an environmental analyst and permit specialist for the Department of Environmental Conservation’s Lakes and Ponds Program.
Among those attending was Ferrisburgh Conservation Commission member John Medenwald. Medenwald said residents were “pleasantly surprised” to learn that they could still do what they hoped to do with their properties.
“I think at first the audience was pretty cool. They were coming from, ‘Here’s another regulator trying to restrict what I can do with my land,’” Medenwald said. “And it wasn’t very long into, I’d say a quarter of the way into, his presentation, when he was offering alternatives to stuff, they really opened up and were engaged.”
Cetner, who helps administer the law in Vermont’s five southernmost counties, said that has been the typical experience as he and two other regional permit specialists have handled about 170 applications in the past year, including about 15 in Addison County.
“The vast majority of individuals, they come in with a project, and we work together,” he said. “There’s a lot of back and forth refining the project if need be, but at the end everybody seems to be getting what they want to develop, and we still follow the standards of the Shoreland Protection Act.”
Essentially, the law (a handbook is online at: www.anr.state.vt.us/dec/waterq/lakes/docs/shoreland/lp_ShorelandHandbook…):
• Requires all new development on lakes and ponds larger than 10 acres to be set back at least 100 feet. Six-foot walkways and docks are allowed.
• Grandfathers existing improvements that are closer than 100 feet, but does not allow anything closer than that to be built. Additions (on decks, sheds or garages) may be added as long as they are not closer than existing improvements. Rebuilding in the same footprint is also allowed, as is septic or water system repair.
• Limits impervious surfaces (such as roofs and driveways) to 20 percent of a lot total, unless mitigating steps called “Best Management Practices” are taken, such as extra plantings, re-vegetating cleared areas, terracing or other options.
• Limits clearing of lots to 40 percent of total acreage, unless mitigating steps are taken. There are also rules that allow for thinning of wooded areas to create views; essentially, two large trees per 25-foot-by-25-foot square is acceptable.
• Disallows building on slopes of greater than 20 percent, unless mitigating steps are taken.
• Requires a $125 permit or a $100 registration for a number of projects — essentially most work that creates more cleared areas or impervious surfaces on a lot on a qualifying body of water.
What Cetner told those attending the Monday session — and will emphasize at another gathering at Branbury State Park on Lake Dunmore at 3:30 p.m. on July 21 — is that state officials will work with landowners to accommodate their goals.
As state officials do so, Medenwald said, they are also meeting the goals of the law. Each provision, he said, is designed to minimize damaging stormwater runoff into lakes by preserving natural vegetation, which, unlike human development, absorbs the water.
“Anything that can be done to slow the stormwater runoff and get it to infiltrate will ultimately help the water quality of the lake,” Medenwald said.
Cetner said questions on Monday naturally focused on whether meeting that goal would restrict property owners’ goals for their land. People were happy with the answers, he said.
“If there is an issue with their project, something we can’t approve, we’ll just refine their application into something that we can essentially approve on our end and something they’re also satisfied with having,” he said.
Cetner said Monday’s workshop, which included a practical demonstration of tree thinning, and similar efforts have had a positive effect on people’s view of the law.
“They were under the impression they weren’t going to be able to cut a tree or build a house or do anything anymore,” he said. “Pretty much at the end of every workshop, there’s this overwhelming response of, ‘Wow, that’s alleviated all of my fears. I’m pleasantly surprised by how much I can still do.’”
Medenwald urged lakefront property owners to attend the upcoming session at Branbury State Park, an event that includes free admission to the site. He believes the word will spread that the Shoreland Protection Act will serve both the state’s waters and its residents.
“It’s all about the education process. Once the landowners get valid answers to their questions from the source, and not through hearsay or rumor patrol, I think it will allay a lot of fears,” he said. “As lakeside landowners go through the process and talk to the neighbors about the process, I think that will also help.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].
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