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Editorial: What’s to be gained in upgrading wetland’s status

The petition to reclassify the 15,500-acre Otter Creek Wetland Complex from a Class II status to Class I poses some interesting questions as to what is to be gained, but at the very least the months of discussion that is likely to ensue will teach Addison County residents about the invaluable functions and “irreplaceable values” of what is the state’s largest wetland. (Click here to read our story.)
We all know that one of the most essential values of this wetland is that it mitigates the impact of potential flooding downstream, protecting Middlebury’s downtown and village from the flooding that occurs in the county’s mountain towns and those immediately at the base of the Greens, like Bristol, Brandon, and even East Middlebury.
But the wetland also filters the waters of the Otter Creek, cleaning it as providing for a rich diversity of wildlife — from insects to birds, fish and mammals. Take a kayak or canoe into its inner sanctuary on the right day and you’ll enter a world with extraordinary qualities, unique in its aquatic habitat and offering a beauty not often seen.
But this is true today. The question of interest is what improvements would come of upgrading the wetland from a Class II status to Class I?
What we know is that the buffer around the boundary would expand from the current 50 feet to 100 feet. This could modestly prevent some development, or loss of wetlands, among the 533 landowners living in the seven towns surrounding the wetland: Brandon, Whiting, Sudbury, Leicester, Salisbury, Cornwall and Middlebury. But not by much. Agricultural and forestry uses are exempt uses, so any current farm or forestry practices would continue unchanged. One concern is what happens when land is allowed to go fallow for a year or more; state rules suggest that the prior use is lost in that circumstance and would require applying for a new permit to a changed use or to resume prior practices, but then again there are enough exceptions to the rule to require a thorough review.
While it makes sense that landowners would naturally be wary of a possible “taking” of the full value of their property (as such heightened environmental classifications almost always mean the landowner has less potential to “develop”), it’s not clear that would necessarily be the case. For some properties, the Class I classification might one day lead to cleaner waters and an increase in property values. And one could imagine circumstances in which the state or federal government might subsidize efforts on abutting farmland to help reduce phosphorous runoff into a Class I wetland, but not a Class II wetland.
We also can speculate that the discussions that will occur over the next 6-12 months, or possibly more, will not so much debate whether the Otter Creek Wetland Complex qualifies for Class I status (as it most likely does), but whether that more restrictive designation is a benefit or detriment to the surrounding towns and to abutting landowners. We can also speculate early on is that what will likely transpire is the creation of a wetland that leaves much of the outer boundary of the current Class II wetland mostly intact, but creates a Class I zone within that. How big that Class I wetland will be and what those boundaries are will be the nitty-gritty work of the local committees and state bureaucracies that most devoted to this cause.
It will be an interesting discussion that should lead to heightened awareness of a truly incredible resource, and a higher benefit to all concerned. Surely, that is the goal. To get there, abutting landowners and town residents that border the wetland must be involved. It’s through that public engagement that viable solutions that work for everyone will be achieved.
Those discussions will start this Tuesday, June 25 at a meeting at the Cornwall Town Hall from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m., and on Thursday, June 27 at the same time in the Salisbury Congregational Church.
Angelo Lynn

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