WEYBRIDGE — The General Assembly is likely to postpone until next year a controversial bill that many shoreline property owners fear would place greater restrictions on how they will be able to develop their waterfront property.
The shorelands protection bill (H.526) was approved by the House late last month by a 105-42 tally. The bill would require that a permit be obtained from the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources prior to new construction within 250 feet of a major pond or lake. The bill allows for permitting to be delegated to the towns provided they have adopted state-approved shoreland protection bylaws by Jan. 1, 2015.
It’s a bill that has been lambasted by many shoreland property owners, but praised by environmental advocates as a tool to help limit the clearing of trees and vegetation along shorelines; such vegetation helps prevent lawn chemicals, fertilizers and other potentially harmful substances from getting into the state’s lakes and ponds.
Sen. Claire Ayer, D-Addison, said she and fellow Sen. Chris Bray, D-New Haven, are working with legislative leaders to “slow down” H.526. Ayer, assistant majority leader of the Senate, discussed the bill at a legislative breakfast in Weybridge on Monday.
“There are a lot of good things in the bill and I would be fine with it if it passed,” Ayer said, noting her entire house would fall within the 250-foot zone of the proposed shoreland protection area. “But there is such misinformation about the bill and such anger about the process — even though it’s been a public process — it makes sense to me to slow the whole thing down, have public hearings … and allow people to feel that they have more input and more knowledge of the process. We’re hoping that’s what happens and that we finish with the bill in January (of 2014).”
That came as good news to some attendees at Monday’s final legislative breakfast. Among them were Tim Buskey, a shorelands property owner and member of the Addison County Farm Bureau.
“That’s the right position to take, that we’d like to slow it down and look at it again,” Buskey said. “The Farm Bureau position has been to kill the bill, to stop the bill. You already have existing statutes in place that do everything the bill does; the only difference is, the local folks have the input, it’s not a politically appointed secretary that has the input.”
Rep. Warren Van Wyck, R-Ferrisburgh, reported continued opposition to H.526 from some of his constituents who live on Lake Champlain. Local opponents, he said, include owners of the Basin Harbor Club.
“Nobody wants pure water more than the owners of a resort for fishing, swimming and recreation,” Van Wyck said. He pointed to testimony indicating that Lake Champlain beach-related, stormwater runoff problems can be traced more to the Burlington and Shelburne areas than in Addison County.
“If the Senate is able to close (H.526) down or shut it down and re-work it and get real public input on it, it would be a big help,” Van Wyck. “It was rushed through the House. When there were public hearings in the House, you couldn’t even get a draft of the bill the day before, and people were supposed to testify about it. There were a lot of people upset about the whole process.”
Rep. Harvey Smith, R-New Haven, was also pleased to hear about the potential for the bill to be tabled by the Senate. He said the House ended up voting for “version 12 or 13” of H.526, a bill he said “for the first time in many years, started pointing fingers again” at farmers, Burlington residents and municipal waste disposal facilities and other entities believed to be responsible for runoff problems.
“It’s the farmers, it’s the people in Burlington, it’s the municipal waste — but we are all part of it and we all need to work together as a community to put this together,” Smith said. “I think this lakeshore bill has brought out the worst in some of us and we’ve started to point fingers again.”
Starksboro resident Rich Warren owns property in North Hero. He said he’s concerned about the extent to which he might have to get permits to make rudimentary repairs to his shorefront property if H.526 passes in its current form.
“I’m concerned about the state permit part,” he said. “I have stairs that go down to the lake. If the wood rots out, am I going to have to get a state permit to replace those stairs? It seems pretty excessive.”
Warren said he’s also concerned about the impact the bill could have on lake-area septic systems.
“When we have these bills that tell the Agency of Natural Resources to create some rules, we don’t know what those are going to be when a bill like this passes,” he said.
Bray said he looks forward to working with opponents and proponents of H.526 to find a “healthy way forward” toward a compromise. He added there are 241 municipalities in the state, of which only 48 currently have bylaws that control shorelines.
“There is a need to do something; the question is, how do you put together a healthy, productive process that towns and municipalities feel honored for their own expertise and desires, as well as meet some generally accepted standards that will lead to higher quality water and higher quality shorelines,” Bray said.
Rep. Willem Jewett, D-Ripton, is House Majority Leader and member of the House Fish, Wildlife and Water Resources Board from which H.526 originated. He pointed to the dozen drafts of H.526 as evidence that lawmakers are listening to constituents and changing the bill in reaction to testimony. Jewett added he spent several hours talking to Lake Dunmore/Fern Lake constituents on a recent Saturday evening to get their input on the legislation.
“When clean water intersects with property rights, (drafting legislation) gets tougher,” he said. “The bill fundamentally changed from the time it was originally submitted as H.223.”
He conceded the timing of the drafting of the bill was “difficult,” since it started to get play the week after the annual town meeting break. But he said time crunches and bill revisions are part of daily life in the Statehouse and are often unavoidable in a citizen Legislature that deals with hundreds of initiatives during the session.
“Additional work will be helpful,” he said of a potential postponement in dealing with H.526.
Jewett stressed that people with an interest in the bill have had — and will continue to have — a chance to be heard.
“This is all going to work out,” Jewett said. “The Senate could be quite helpful to the process, and we will get there either this year or next year.”
Reported John Flowers is at [email protected]