ST. ALBANS — The new Shorelands Protection Act, a piece of legislation passed this past session, goes into effect today.
For Franklin County residents, this means that landowners along the shores of lakes greater than 10 acres – such as Lake Champlain and Lake Carmi – must secure permits before clearing vegetation or increasing impervious surface on their land.
In addition to municipalities (see accompanying list), local landowners have been adjusting to the new law, and in some cases, getting out ahead of it.
The act was passed with the intent of protecting wildlife habitat, since over 90 percent of aquatic species and fish spend most of their lives in the shallows of these larger lakes, where vegetation provides shade and spawning areas.
In addition, trees and shrubs can create root systems that hold together the shoreline during floods and large storms, preventing erosion.
While the affected towns in this region must comply with the latest set of state regulations, all are still in the process of discovering their roles. St. Albans Town, Georgia, Swanton, Highgate, Alburgh and Franklin, among others in the county, are all required to adopt the new development standards, but according to various town administrators and town clerks, the state has not made it clear what exactly they need to do.
Beginning today, lakeshore residents must go through a state approval process with the state before doing any new or additional development on their land.
While the state must permit new development, Dept. of Environmental Conservation officials said in an informational public meeting two weeks ago that enforcement will largely be voluntary and complaint-driven. Initially, the law’s implementation will mostly consist of education and outreach about the state’s new expectations.
There is also the option of municipal delegation, where local towns take on the state’s development standards through zoning bylaws or a town ordinance. However, in Franklin County, many affected towns have decided to not take on the enforcement, or have not discussed it yet.
For towns along Lake Champlain like St. Albans and Swanton, it’s been made clear that the resources for enforcement are not available within the town offices. “[The standards are] fairly restrictive,” said Town Manager Carrie Johnson by phone Monday. “We don’t have the administrative capabilities to enforce those.”
Swanton Town Administrator David Jescavage on Monday described the municipal delegation as a “free ride for the state,” yesterday. “I don’t think [the selectboard] would be interested in adding more state-initiated regulations to the bylaws,” he said.
He added, “I don’t think that many towns would choose to initiate that option.”
For towns like Highgate, Georgia, Franklin and Alburgh, the municipal delegation option is one that still needs to be brought up by the selectboard.
“They are still looking at what’s there,” said Georgia Town Administrator Mike McCarthy in a phone message yesterday. “No action has been taken and no real direction has been planned on yet.”
In addition, McCarthy said the state has to still make decisions about the law’s enforcement. “It’s so new,” he said. “It’s causing quite a bit of consternation.”
Franklin already has development standards in place for shoreland landowners along Lake Carmi, and Town Clerk and Treasurer Lisa Larivee said municipal delegation would be a topic at the next selectboard meeting.
“That hasn’t really been discussed or decided as of yet,” she said yesterday.
The same goes for Highgate, where municipal delegation will be brought up this month. Town Administrator Heidi Britch-Valenta said yesterday that the selectboard hadn’t yet indicated what the town will do.
“I wouldn’t say one way or the other,” she said.
For the Town of Alburgh, which has no zoning and therefore no established legal development standards, things are more confusing than anywhere else.
“We’re still trying to figure that out,” said Town Clerk Donna Bohannon. She said the state is recommending people record their development plans to be approved, and that the town should most likely be able to choose municipal delegation if they want.
“I would imagine we still have that option,” Bohannon said.
In Alburgh, Bohannon said droves of Lake Champlain landowners have been descending on the town offices.
“We’ve had people coming in to record their plans for building,” she said.
In Swanton, Jescavage said people have come in to complain of their lower property values. “I know the town clerks have had people come in and claim because of the new restrictions, it’s reduced their property value,” he said.
In other towns, the resident response has been rather quiet.
“We haven’t really had any sort of comment come in from the public,” said Britch-Valente of Highgate.
“We haven’t been getting as many calls as expected,” said Johnson of St. Albans Town. She added that that might be due to unawareness or misunderstanding of the Shorelands Protection Act, or, just a lack of response.
In Franklin, Larivee said people have been quietly looking into things on their own. “People are doing their research.”
Georgia hasn’t heard from many town residents either. “It’s very quiet on that front,” said McCarthy. He did acknowledge that some shoreland residents took matters into their own hands, legally taking out any trees and doing any impervious surfacing before the law went into effect today.
“I can’t say I blame them,” he added.
Area water bodies of 10 acres, plus
The Shorelands Protection Act will affect eight Franklin County towns and landowners on nine different bodies of water. These (along with Milton in Chittenden County and Alburgh in Grand Isle County) include:
Arrowhead Mountain Lake: Milton, Georgia – 760 acres
Lake Carmi: Franklin – 1,402 acres
Lake Champlain: Alburgh, Highgate, Swanton, St. Albans Town, Georgia – 313,600 acres
Cutler Pond: Highgate – 25 acres
Fairfield Pond: Fairfield – 446 acres
Fairfield Swamp Pond: Swanton – 152 acres
Halfmoon Pond: Fletcher – 21 acres
Little Pond: Franklin – 95 acres
Silver Lake: Fairfax – 27 acres