Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Coastal Lawmakers Back Protection for Marshes; Legislators Plan to Put Long-Standing 25-Foot Buffer Policy into Law

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Coastal Lawmakers Back Protection for Marshes; Legislators Plan to Put Long-Standing 25-Foot Buffer Policy into Law

Article excerpt

Byline: Walter C. Jones

ATLANTA | The legislators making up the Coastal Caucus in the General Assembly agreed Thursday to add legal requirements for a 25-foot buffer of undisturbed land around saltwater marshes, putting long-standing state policy into the law.

Since 1994, the Environmental Protection Division has required the buffers or insisted on a variance with other safeguards even though the wording in the law only deals with freshwater marshes. Officials from Chatham County objected to the policy since the law didn't require it, and the attorney general agreed. So the EPD notified local governments April 22.

Other local governments have also bristled at the expensive mitigation measures needed for development when a variance is issued.

Sen. Ben Watson, R-Savannah, said environmentalists, state and local government officials have been in discussions since April when the EPD notice stirred controversy over a legislative remedy.

"I think we're all on board, whether you're EPD or private property owners or a conservationist," he said.

At issue was whether the law requires a buffer when there is no "wrested vegetation," or the absence of plants along a water body's bank due to waves or stream action. The law calls for buffers 25 feet from where plants were wrested away shorelines, but the water in marshes is too calm to wash away plants.

Watson said the proposal will rely on other indicators that the Georgia Coastal Resources Division uses to determine the edge of marshes.

"It comes down to science, and there is good science in that," he said.

Other legislators from the six counties along the coast voiced their agreement with Watson's bill, which had yet to be introduced.

"I don't think we've got an option. The marshes are too critical," said Rep. Ron Stephens, R-Savannah, chairman of the caucus.

OTHER CONCERNS

However, Rep. Jesse Petrea, R-Savannah, expressed concern for people who had bought property since EPD's April statement and were counting on a local interpretation of where buffers begin. …

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