Petition seeks to upgrade Otter Creek Wetland status

CORNWALL — A local effort to change the protected status of the Otter Creek Wetland Complex from Class II to Class I is in the early phases of development. This week, residents will have the opportunity to ask questions and learn more about the initiative at two public meetings to be held in Salisbury and Cornwall on June 25 & 27.
Currently, the 15,550-acre Otter Creek Wetland Complex has a Class II status, running 15 linear miles from Brandon north to the southern edge of Middlebury. Among other requirements, this stipulates the wetland has a 50-foot buffer zone surrounding its mapped boundary, where development of most kinds is limited and overseen by a strict permitting process. Growing food or crops, pasturing livestock and other agricultural activities, along with forestry uses, are exempt from those restrictions and currently allowed within the buffer zone.
However, in order for a new structure to be built within the buffer, the builder must secure a permit from the state by demonstrating that there is a compelling public health or safety reason to do so. Little would seemingly change with a Class I status, except the buffer would be extended to 100 feet and if land were to lay fallow for a year or more, that land might not be able to be returned to its fullest use.
Members of the Cornwall and Salisbury conservation commissions are currently leading the effort to petition the change in the wetland’s status. In order to be eligible for Class I status, a wetland must, among other qualities, have at least one “function and value” that is deemed “exceptionalandirreplaceable.” Flood storage, water quality, fish habitat, wildlife habitat, exemplary communities, rare, threatened and endangered species, education and research, recreation and economics, open space and erosion control are all recognized functions and values of wetlands, according to the Vermont Wetland Rules. An extensive set of criteria is used to evaluate which of those functions and values a wetland provides to determine whether, collectively, they make its contributions exceptional and irreplaceable.
While it is likely the Otter Creek Wetland Complex would meet those requirements, there is an elaborate process to reach that determination. And whether the reclassification is advisable, and what are the pros and cons, will be part of the public debate if the state chooses to pursue the Class I status.
The most significant change this would bring for the 533 landowners whose properties abut the swamp is an increase to the buffer zone, from 50 feet to 100 feet of a new wetland boundary. That boundary will be determined through public process, with some sections of the wetlands possibly retaining a Class II status if warranted. Landowners should know that the practices currently exempt from regulation within the existing buffer zone — existing agriculture and forestry operations — would remain exempt if the wetland were designated as Class I.
A steering committee of 10, which formed in February 2019 and is comprised of members of the Cornwall and Salisbury Conservation Commissions, along with residents of Middlebury, Leicester, Brandon and Matt Lacey of The Nature Conservancy, is leading the petition effort.
As part of the petition, the steering committee will need to develop a map of the area it proposes should be reclassified as a Class I Wetland. Multiple public meetings will be held throughout the summer to solicit public input about where that boundary should be drawn.
In recent weeks, the committee mailed a letter to between 200 and 300 individuals and organizations owning property abutting the wetland informing them they were pursuing a reclassification effort and notified them of the two upcoming public meetings. Other meetings will be held this summer to reach town residents in Middlebury, Leicester, Brandon, Sudbury and Whiting. Anyone is free to attend any or all of the public hearings.
And according to Emily Boedecker, Commissioner of the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation, there will be additional opportunities for landowners and residents to offer input on the project once the state receives the petition from the steering committee in late August or September.
Heidi Willis, a founding member of the Salisbury Conservation Commission who, along with Mary Dodge of the Cornwall Conservation Commission, first brought the reclassification project forward, said the steering committee hopes to submit a completed petition to the DEC. in the fall of 2019.
Once the Department of Environmental Conservation receives a petition for a wetland reclassification, a multi-month public process is triggered to determine the wetland’s status. The Vermont Wetlands Program, a subsidiary of the DEC, reviews the application for accuracy and consistency.
At this phase, at least one formal public meeting will likely be held by the Wetlands Department to inform residents that a potential reclassification process has been initiated, what the proposed changes are and what would change if they are adopted. Legally, all public comments received must be addressed.
After that step, the DEC evaluates the petition to see if the wetland meets the standard of offering an irreplaceable function or value. If the DEC determines the application is complete and accurate enough to move forward, a second formal public meeting is held, where additional public comments can be made and must be addressed.
At that point, the DEC files the petition with the Interagency Committee on Administrative Rules (ICAR). “They ask, does the petition conform with statute, the legislative intent of the wetland rules, and is it in alignment with the policies of the Governor?” said Boedecker this week. ICAR reviews the petition during a public hearing, where it is either approved or denied.
If approved, they file it with the Secretary of State, who can request another public hearing process to solicit further public input regarding the proposed wetland boundary.
If satisfied with the proposal, the Secretary of State then files it with the Legislative Committee on Administrative Rules (LCAR), comprised of legislators from across the state, which holds a public hearing to determine whether the petition to change the wetland’s status complies with the legislative intent of the wetland rules and whether there is broad support for the proposed change. Addison County Senator Chris Bray currently sits on the LCAR.
At the upcoming meetings, steering committee members and representatives from the DEC. will address the functions the Otter Creek Wetland Complex serves and provide information about what a potential reclassification would mean for landowners and the wetland. One goal from the petitioners is to ensure protection from development and prevent degradation of the wetland, while another is to improve water quality.
“During a time when we are really challenged by water quality in Lake Champlain, wetlands have a huge service to perform in improving water quality, by filtering out sediments and nutrient loading from runoff before it hits larger bodies of water,” said Eve Frankel, director of Strategic Communications at the Vermont Chapter of the Nature Conservancy. “We’ve lost a significant amount of wetlands not only in the United States, but also in Vermont as well. The time is now to protect and restore these tremendous working lands for future generations.” “At the national level,” added Willis, “with a lot of environmental protections being rolled back, it just provides that protection [on a local level].”
Throughout the process, public participation is encouraged.
“Public involvement really helps to strengthen the process,” said Boedecker. “We hope that wherever we end up that this is something the communities involved are really able to be proud of and buy into. That only happens if we can get really meaningful engagement.”
Boedecker added, that, if a reclassification is approved it is unlikely that the entirety of the existing wetland will be re-classified as Class I. “The petition will specify which portions of that Class II wetland the petitioners believe warrant Class I protection. We don’t anticipate that will be every inch of the [existing] Class II wetland.”
Addressing concerns about insecticide use, Boedecker explained that “insecticide use is not regulated under the Vermont Wetland Rules. A classification change from II to I will make no difference whatsoever. That program will continue to run under the mosquito control district and will run exactly as it has in the past.”
The first informational meeting will be held Tuesday, June 25, from 6:30-7:30 p.m. at the Cornwall Town Hall. The next meeting will be held Thursday, June 27, 6:30-7:30 p.m. at the Salisbury Congregational Church.

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