SWANTON — Landowners along Vermont’s lakes will need to secure permits before clearing vegetation from their land or increasing the amount of impervious surface on a lakefront property starting on July 1.
The primary focus of the new law is to preserve vegetation along shorelines, explained Trey Martin, public affairs counsel at the Dept. of Environmental Conservation (DEC). The law grants DEC flexibility in working with landowners to be able to build new homes or expand existing ones as long as steps are taken to maintain water quality.
Martin and other DEC staff, including commissioner David Mears were in Swanton Thursday night to explain the new law to interested landowners and municipal officials. The Northwest Regional Planning Commission (NRPC) organized the meeting.
Onshore vegetation is crucial to reduce erosion and provides habitat for animals both onshore and in the water, explained Martin. Ninety-three percent of fish and other aquatic animals spend all or most of their lives in the shallows. The vegetation provides needed shade as well as spawning areas for a large number of fish species.
Trees and shrubs together can create a large root mass that will hold land in place, including during floods and large storms, he explained.
The law allows landowners who wish to create new developments or expand existing developments to use a variety of erosion control measures to offset changes they make to their land.
“The law instructs us … to be flexible and work with people,” said Martin.
The law does not apply to current land uses, only future expansions or new development. “No permits necessary to keep doing what you’re doing,” said Martin.
The new rules are concerned with the amount of vegetation, cleared land and impervious surface on lakefront properties, as well as the slope, all factors which contribute to erosion.
The law applies to properties along lakes more than 10 acres in size.
Under the law, an ideal development would occur on land with less than a 20 percent slope, with impervious surface located more than 100 feet from the shore, and less than 40 percent of the lot cleared of vegetation.
Landowners whose projects do not meet these guidelines can implement practices intended to mitigate their impact on water quality and aquatic life. For example, owners of land with more than a 20 percent slope could use terracing, upslope berms, re-vegetation of cleared areas and other methods to reduce the impact of their new construction.
“There’s going to be lots of ways for people to develop and protect the lake,” said Kevin Burke of DEC.
If impervious surface exceeds 20 percent of the lot, or the landowner’s lot is too small to allow for 100 feet between the shore and the building, landowners will be able to use a variety of mitigation practices, such as infiltration of stormwater with a rain garden, or a dry well, waterbar or drip line trench.
If cleared area will exceed 40 percent of the total parcel, landowners may be able to secure a permit by creating a no mow zone near the shore or re-establishing vegetation in key areas of the property.
“We’re prepared to work with landowners and find a solution when they have a project,” said Burke.
The state has adopted vegetation management system already in use in Maine and New Hampshire to guide landowners when removing trees. Trees will be assigned a point value based on their diameter and landowners will then be able to remove up to a certain number of points within each 25 foot square of property.
“You know and we know how many trees are required on your property to maintain water quality,” said Martin.
Pruning of the lower third of trees is allowed.
Landowners can create a six-foot wide path from their home to the water without a permit. They can also do maintenance on existing buildings and rebuild in existing building and driveway footprints.
Up to 250 square feet of vegetation under three feet in height may be removed without a permit, if the vegetation is more than 25 feet from the shore and as long as the management practices outlined above are followed and the duff layer remains.
The permit also allows for a simpler registration process for projects creating less than 100 square feet of new impervious surface at least 25 feet from the shore or which result in less than 500 square feet of new clearing or new impervious surface more than 100 feet from the shore.
Enforcement & delegation
Steve Coon, of St. Albans Town, asked about enforcement.
“The enforcement question is a good one,” answered Burke. “We simply don’t have the resources to drive around and be enforcement police.” Enforcement, he acknowledged, is usually complaint driven.
Burke also pointed out that the state expects most people will voluntarily follow the new regulations.
Mears, speaking of DEC enforcement more generally, said, “We bring our resources to bear on enforcement when people do something egregious.” With this law the initial focus is on education, outreach, and “setting in place a new set of expectations,” he added.
The state also hopes to expand enforcement by partnering with municipalities, according to Mears.
The law allows municipalities to take over the implementation of the shoreland protection rules provided the municipality adopts zoning by-laws that offer at least as much protection to the shoreline and water quality as the state rules, explained Burke.
Towns will have the option of assuming sole jurisdictional authority or sharing that authority with the state.
Coon questioned the need for this bill, arguing there are larger problems in Lake Champlain. Mears, who has spearheaded the state’s efforts to develop new pollution limits for Lake Champlain in conjunction with the Environmental Protection Agency, responded the work being done on the lake as a whole is much bigger than this.
“This was something people in the legislature asked for,” said Mears, based on concerns from their constituents about clearing of lakeshore.
He offered to return to explain the work being done on pollution limits for the lake, known as the total maximum daily load (TMDL). He has already visited the area multiple times to discuss the TMDL, along with Secretary of Agriculture Chuck Ross.
Additional information is available from NRPC and on the DEC Web site.