Coates Island, a tiny peninsula that juts into Malletts Bay, is dotted with beautiful homes and striking views of Lake Champlain. It's been in the Coates family for going on 140 years, a fact that island resident David Coates' is proud to point out. He's also quick to point out the family's longtime stewardship of the land.
"We haven't had a structure on this island for almost 50 years," Coates said. "And we're content with that right now because we know it protects the lake."
But Coates Island's shoreline conservation practices may be an exception to the rule. The state, in a report this year, says Vermont's undeveloped shorelines are in desperate need of protection and that the state's future water quality is at stake.
"So what we're trying to do is to keep nutrients, toxins, bacteria out of the lake and rely on Mother Nature to provide that protection," said Rep. David Deen, D-Westminster.
A bill moving through the House seeks to regulate shoreline development from Lake Champlain all the way down to the smallest pond. Among other things it would require homeowners to get permits for shoreline development, restore vegetative buffer zones to prevent runoff and avoid clear-cutting for trophy views.
"Potentially you've got no protection against erosion forces when you have wave action. That means that sediment is going into the lake. And in the case of Lake Champlain and other lakes, that means phosphorous can be moving with those soil particles," Deen said.
Opponents say such a statewide approach to zoning is overkill.
"I think if they're having problems in some towns-- and I know they're talking about agriculture and I know the Agriculture Department has come out against this-- but if they're having problems there, fix those problems. Don't think that one size fits all," Coates said.
The League of Cities and Towns has also come out against the bill, saying that many towns already have strict shoreline zoning and that the state is in no position to enforce the rules.
Supporters say that other Northeast states including Maine and New Hampshire already have similar laws, and that in the end homeowners reap the benefits.
"It's become clear that pollution there in certain pockets is beginning to undermine the ability of people to rent their properties, to sell their properties and we'd hate to see the same thing happen to other lakes around the state of Vermont," said Jake Brown of the Vermont Natural Resources Council.
The House measure was met with major blowback from property rights groups during its first hearing. And Deen says it likely to see substantial changes in the coming weeks. Finding the delicate balance between property rights and public water quality protection.
Shoreland Protection Public Hearing - H.223 Tuesday, March 12, from 6-8 p.m. in Room 11 of the Vt. Statehouse.
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