Legislators have moved cautiously toward adoption of a bill instituting protection of lakeshore properties. Property owners with shoreline frontage are sensitive to the possibility that new regulations will interfere with their property rights, preventing them from new construction or other improvements. At the same time, those concerned about water quality worry that without regulations our lakes are being degraded.
Vermont, the environmental state, is a laggard when it comes to lakeshore regulation. New Hampshire and Maine have already taken steps to protect their lakeshores. But despite its environmental reputation, Vermont is also a state where the rights of private property remain highly valued, and legislators understand property owners are watching them closely.
They also understand that shorelines are particularly important components of the landscape. Heedless clearing of land along the shore can lead to erosion and pollution. It can harm habitats on the land and in the water. Lakeshores, like river banks, are complex ecosystems where diverse habitats interact and must be protected.
The public has accepted the fact that it has no right to allow unacceptable pollution to enter the state’s water bodies. That’s why we have water-quality regulations.
In fact, the owners of property adjoining lakes and rivers have bought additional responsibility when they took possession of their land — responsibility for the water that is affected by their land. The waters belong to the people, and it might as well be written into the landowner’s deed that he or she has accepted responsibility for the people’s waters.
That responsibility might come as an unwelcome surprise to landowners who believe a man’s home is his castle and he ought to be able to do anything he wants with his property. But the state’s cherished lakes — Bomoseen, St. Catherine, Dunmore, Champlain and all the others — are owned communally, and protecting them is a communal responsibility. The lakeshore, or riverside, property owner is part of the community that shares responsibility for the waters and the shoreline.
A Senate committee has been at work on a lakeshore protection bill that creates lakeshore buffer zones that subject property to development restrictions. The House has already passed a bill, which would grant the Agency of Natural Resources leeway in writing regulations. The Senate committee is taking a different approach, developing its own specific standards for shoreline development.
The Senate bill would create 250-foot buffers along shorelines, and those building within the buffer would be required to obtain permits from the Agency of Natural Resources. Only 40 percent of the acreage within the buffer could be cleared.
Further restrictions would apply within 100 feet of the lake, where a “well-distributed stand of trees” would have to be maintained. The bill goes so far as to develop a point system within each 25-foot-by-25-foot section to define “well-distributed,” which may be a venture into minutia that is beyond the reasonable scope of legislative action. Providing guidance to ANR about the nature of its regulations is one thing; the agency is probably better equipped than the Legislature to manage the details of shoreland protection.
Landowners need to remember that development along shorelines will not be forbidden. On the other hand, it will be subject to regulation that takes into account the landowner’s responsibility for the adjoining waters. Someone who wants to scrape away the soil and place down an asphalt boat ramp, irrespective of the flora and fauna, and of the soils sustaining the flora and fauna, will be thwarted. That is the point. Someone who wants to add onto his cottage or build a barbecue pit will be permitted as long as he or she maintains suitable protections of the waters we all share.
The lakeshore protection bill has been a hot topic during the past few years because of lack of trust between some landowners and state policymakers and bureaucrats. As the Legislature moves toward final action on a bill, it will be important that it keep regulations clear and easy to interpret and establishes a permit process that is as simple as possible. That way trust can be established and maintained.
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