ST. ALBANS — The Legislative Study Committee on Wetlands gathered testimony in the St. Albans Public Library here Wednesday afternoon on a Vermont Agency of Natural Resources proposal adding state wetland regulations regarding farming.
The ANR proposes amending Vermont’s wetlands regulation through a new permitting process. Growing food and crops on a wetland might be excluded, and the ANR could issue permitting exemptions in specific cases.
In the library’s meeting room Wednesday afternoon, the legislative study committee compared prior wetlands regulations and current wetland regulations to the ANR proposal.
It was a confusing process for both the legislative committee and those watching the committee in action.
Case in point: legislative counsel Michael O’Grady succinctly summarized ANR’s proposal as concerning just how the state regulates farming in wetlands — but then O’Grady revealed there are 28 different definitions of farming in Vermont statutes.
Rep. Amy Sheldon, of Middlebury, asked how many of those definitions are inconsistent.
“Twenty-eight,” O’Grady replied.
And further complicating the situation, O’Grady told the committee there’s no federal definition of farming to fall back on.
The committee’s problems aren’t just verbiage.
O’Grady said the committee’s burden is the tension between “interested parties” who feel ANR’s proposal subjects farmers to harsher regulation and their opposite: interested parties who feel the proposal doesn’t sufficiently protect the state’s wetlands.
Sheldon farmer Bill Rowell had a simple solution: don’t bother.
“Usually when something works pretty well you don’t go about fixing it,” Rowell said.
Rowell told the study committee the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets’ Required Agricultural Practices, or RAPs, “do a good job” balancing farming against environmental health.
With that in mind, Rowell said the cost of re-educating farmers through pamphlets and info sessions alone is greater than the benefit of the proposed regulations.
“All those expenses and disturbances don’t lead to water quality,” he told the committee.
Sen. Chris Pearson of Burlington told Rowell the committee hears the current regulations aren’t clear.
Rowell said the AAFM went out of its way to ensure farmers know now how to identify wetlands.
As far as proposed wetland regulations, Rowell told the committee in closing, “Unless it’s something substantive, I’d leave it alone.”
Rowell didn’t step down from the witness chair without thanking the legislature for listening to farmers’ concerns about past ANR fee proposals.
That led Sen. Bobby Starr, of North Troy, to summarize the committee’s intent as follows: “We’re just trying to put together a decent law that everyone can live with.”
Berkshire farmer Amanda St. Pierre echoed Rowell’s sentiments.
She said state agencies haven’t allowed enough time to see the positive consequences of the RAPs.
St. Pierre also extensively discussed her concern that the lack of inter-agency communication is a major problem.
Representatives from both the Natural Resources Conservation Service and Army Corps of Engineers testified as witnesses before the committee, basically just explaining each agency’s role as far as wetlands are concerned.
And both acknowledged that multiple laws intersect when it comes to wetlands, farming and water quality — and also that each law has unique and conflicting requirements.
Michael Adams’ testimony, one of three U.S. Army Corps of Engineers staffers who represent the entire state from an Essex Junction office, led Rep. Harvey Smith of New Haven to ask if there was a “user-friendly” way farmers could compare wetlands requirements between agencies.
The answer was no, although Adams said he thinks the agencies could produce some kind of pamphlet comparing requirements.
St. Pierre said that potential cooperation excites her. She remembered the “fragmented” regulations of the 1990s, referring to the disconnect between individual agencies’ requirements — which she later described as “too many people taking the same piece of pie.”
As for these proposed wetland rules, St. Pierre warned the committee to beware “too many layers of the same thing.”
The committee spent a little over three hours here.
Its next stop is Nov. 20 in Addison County.