A roomful of Shelburne neighbors turned out to ask questions and voice concerns last Wednesday night as a petition to reclassify the LaPlatte River wetlands winds its way through the approval process.
The LaPlatte wetlands, at the river’s entry into Lake Champlain, have long served as “a soup-to-nuts training ground for young biologists, ecologists, scientists,” said Rose Paul, director of Science and Freshwater Programs for The Nature Conservancy, which owns part of the wetlands area.
The petition would change the LaPlatte River wetlands from their current class II status to a class I wetland. Class II wetlands have a 50-foot buffer within which development may only occur with a permit.
Class I reclassification would expand this buffer to 100 feet, Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation Wetlands Program Manager Laura Lapierre explained at the meeting. Within the buffer, the DEC reviews any permit and “will only permit activities in those areas which are compatible with the functions and values of the wetland,” LaPierre noted in a subsequent email.
Jon Groveman with the Vermont Natural Resources Council, which requested the classification change; Lapierre of the DEC, which is reviewing the petition; and Dori Barton and Michael Smith of Arrowwood Environmental, which drafted the petition and performed the field research, attended the hearing to give presentations and answer questions about the wetlands, the petition process, and its potential consequences.
“The question to consider is whether the LaPlatte wetlands are so exceptional or irreplaceable that we add additional protection measures to allow it to continue to be exceptional or irreplaceable for future generations,” LaPierre said in a later email. If the petition is ultimately approved, a state rule-making process will happen next.
Rulemaking “is the process of creating regulation which has statewide effect. In this case if the petition is accepted, the Agency of Natural Resources will be proposing to amend the Vermont Wetland Rules appendix A to include the LaPlatte Wetlands,” Lapierre added.
Shelburne Selectboard member Jerry Storey said the town supports the petition “in concept” but the board still needs to discuss it in detail. After it does so, it will send written comments to the DEC. Susan Moegenburg of the Shelburne Natural Resources and Conservation Committee offered a series of questions about the potential impacts of reclassifying the wetlands on the town and its facilities. She said that her committee also will be involved in the conversation at the Sept. 12 Selectboard meeting.
There are 10 criteria, called “functions and values,” that state regulators consider when deciding whether a wetland is eligible for reclassification. Smith noted that the LaPlatte wetlands are “exemplary for nine out of the 10.” For example, Barton pointed out that with a great deal of agricultural runoff headed for Shelburne Bay, the wetlands filter surface water before it reaches Lake Champlain.
The wetlands are, said Barton, “a last line of defense,” noting that Shelburne Bay does have a high nutrient load. But, said Barton, “without [the wetlands] would things be a lot worse? Yes. Guaranteed.”
Several landowners whose properties fall within the proposed expanded buffer zone asked questions about the changes that class I designation would entail. A leading concern among neighbors was what would happen to their property rights if they decided to make changes on their properties. For example, how would the new designation treat existing structures in the larger buffer area? Lapierre explained that existing buildings would be grandfathered into the expanded buffer.
Charlie Burnham, who owns land at the mouth of the LaPlatte, asked what might happen if he should undertake activities such as emergency tree cutting or trenching, should the buffer expand to include more of his property. Robin Jeffers, who recently purchased a lot along the river, said she plans to build a house on the land and was concerned about how the change may affect her options.
Wetlands are defined on the ground via the identification of three parameters, Lapierre noted: hydric soils, water-loving plants, and water.
“It is likely that the [existing] buffer to the wetland will continue to be encroached upon by development pressures and lose function or value,” said Lapierre, pointing to such threats as the loss of the existing forest buffer, which is important to the wildlife in the area. “Depending on the types of activities which could occur in the future there could be effects on all 10 functions, lowering the condition and value of the wetland over time.”
In addition to the recent public hearing, the DEC will consider questions and comments submitted in writing through Sept. 13. Those interested should reference project #2016-699.P and send to: Watershed Management Division Attn: Wetlands Program Department of Environmental Conservation One National Life Drive Main Building, 2nd Floor Montpelier, VT 05620-3522 or email to: ANR.WSMDWetlands@vermont.gov.