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home : news : regional February 26, 2015

Lakeshore Building Regulation Bill Stalls In Senate
Alicia Freese

The leadership of the Vermont Senate is trying to stitch together a temporary solution that would protect the state's shorelines without raising the ire of waterfront property owners.

The House passed a bill 21 days ago that regulates construction within 250 feet of a shoreline, but it's since faltered in the Senate.

The chair of the House Fish & Wildlife Committee, Rep. David Deen, D-Putney, said his committee took pains to make sure the bill wouldn't infringe upon the rights of property owners. Among other concessions, the House stripped a provision from the bill that would have created a no-build zone within 100 feet of a lakeshore.

But the bill, H.526, still roused a potent strain of opposition among some property owners, and their concerns have since caused the bill to stall in the Senate.

The bill requires a state permit for construction within 250 feet of a shoreline.

Vermont briefly had a shoreline protection law on the books back in the 1970s, but for roughly the last 40 years, the state has left it up to municipalities to decide whether or not to regulate waterfront construction.

Environmental groups say the state needs minimum standards to make sure vegetative buffers along shorelines -- which play a key role in preserving water quality -- stay in place. But many of the state's waterfront residents see the the legislation as an infringement on their property rights.

Sen. Dick Mazza, D-Chittenden-Grand Isle District, whose district includes 126 miles of shoreline on Lake Champlain, said he's received more calls from concerned constituents on this bill than on any other this session.

Mazza said he's not opposed to adopting statewide standards, but the public needs to understand what's at stake before the Senate moves forward.

"It's not good enough for me to find out what I think is right or wrong. People who have property should have input. And all they want to know is exactly what we are proposing. They certainly want a clean lake. Everyone wants a clean lake."

Mazza struck a deal with the Senate leadership and Sen. Bob-Hartwell, D-Bennington, chair of the Natural Resources and Energy Committee, that will put H.526 on hold until next January.

In the meantime, a summer committee will work with the Agency of Natural Resources (ANR) to run a statewide "road show" to give the public a chance to understand and weigh in on the legislation.

But environmental groups fear that if the Senate dawdles any longer, there may be a lakefront construction boom, now that H.526 has stoked the fear of property owners.

At the behest of Hartwell and Senate President Pro-Tem John Campbell, D-Windsor, the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) has come up with a plan to address this concern.

DEC is proposing that the Senate pass a temporary ban on construction within 100 feet of a shoreline, with certain exceptions for municipal waterfronts and wastewater treatment systems. Property owners could also bypass the prohibition if they meet temporary shoreline standards, to be developed by the DEC.

The ban, which would sunset in July 2015, would buy the Senate some time without prompting a flurry of shoreline development. The majority of the Natural Resources Committee members are partial to the idea, but not everyone is behind it.

Mazza said a ban, even if temporary, would meddle with the Senate's effort to gather feedback from property owners.

"That concerns me. I don't think that should be in place, because that, in effect, would say OK, we are going to stop everything prior to us making a decision. I don't think that's a good idea."

But environmental groups are itching for action on the legislation. Jake Brown, spokesman for the Vermont Natural Resources Council (VNRC), told VTDigger: "We're disappointed that the Senate is moving slowly. ... We'd like to have this in place as soon as possible is what it boils down to."

Brown said he's not sure how more public input with help the Senate.

"I think we've had a lot of public input already on the bill. There was a lengthy public hearing. The House Fish and Wildlife [Committee] had testimony from property owners who opposed the bill and property owners who supported. I don't know what further information might be gleaned."

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