It's a battle between property rights and environmental concerns. Legislators are wrangling with new development requirements along the edges of Vermont's lakes and ponds. The measure passed the House last year and is scheduled for a vote in the Senate later this week.
Proponents say it will begin cleansing Vermont's soiled waterways, but opponents call it government overreach and aren't convinced it will benefit the environment. By changing rules for lakeside development, environmentalists hope to stem the tide of deterioration for Vermont's bodies of water. A 2013 report from the state and EPA found that about 80 percent of Vermont's shorelines are overly manicured, labeling them in fair or poor shape. That puts us behind our neighboring states and much of the country.
Megan Epler Wood, who owns a small camp in Alburgh, says she's seen significant alteration to the shore in her time spent paddling around Lake Champlain -- from concrete barriers to trees cut down. "I just really encourage people to see the benefits of this legislation and how much it will actually help us to make it a better place to live on the lake," she said.
Property owners would be limited in expanding homes and clearing land within 100 feet of the water's edge under language passed by the House and set for debate by the full Senate. Mike Winslow, a Staff Scientist with the Lake Champlain Committee, supports the measure. "It's biggest impact is going to be on the smaller lakes and inland lakes where shoreline development is the principal driver of water quality degradation," he said.
Opponents say the measure could hurt lakefront property values and associated businesses. "The unintended consequences are all over the place and so that's the reason I'm against the legislation," said David Emmons, Vice President of the Lake St. Catherine Conservation Fund.
Emmons says the legislation is supported by best practices but would only provide minimal environmental benefits. He says the water within our lakes and ponds rates very highly in comparison to other states -- quoting a key finding from the 2013 report which reads: "Overall, the water quality of Vermont lakes is at least as good as the region and typically better than the nation."
State Senators on the Senate Natural Resources committee spent the last couple of weeks debating the bill. The committee unanimously voted for the current version, but members concede non-lake development and pollution on smaller waterways does more than shorelands to taint our water. "You can't solve the lake's problem simply by going to the lake, you have got to go upstream," said Sen. Bob Hartwell (D-Bennington County).
"We still have a huge amount to do to get to cleaning up the lakes," said Sen. John Rodgers (D-Essex/Orleans Counties)
Legislators describe this measure as a first step, and say more will need to be done in the future to make a significant impact on water quality. The Senate's version is less-restrictive than the version passed previously by the House, which constrained development within 250 feet of the shore.