Coastal development buffer bill divides Georgia environmental groups

Two of Georgia’s leading environmental groups disagree on how the state should guard its coastal marshes from the intrusions of development, a new wrinkle for proposed legislation that already has plenty.

Senate Bill 101, which would re-establish a 25-foot buffer rule that existed for 10 years, passed the Senate overwhelmingly earlier this month, but the Sierra Club wants it changed or killed in the House. The Georgia Conservancy, however, says this flawed bill is better than no bill.

Now, the House member with the power to move the bill toward final passage says he’s been told state law already provides for a 25-foot buffer. With only six legislative days left in the 2015 session, time is running out for all sides to find agreement.

SB 101 is the result of Georgia Environmental Protection Director Jud Turner’s decision last year to strike down a 10-year-old regulation that enforced a development buffer around saltwater marshes in many cases. A lawsuit arguing the point is now before the state Supreme Court. Turner wants lawmakers — or the courts — to clarify the law

Business leaders, including the Georgia Chamber of Commerce, support SB 101 and say it will reduce costs and ease permitting for new projects or maintenance.

The buffers are considered important because they help reduce erosion and filter land-based pollutants such as fertilizer and insecticides that threaten the state’s environmentally sensitive coastal habitat, an area rich in wildlife that the Southern Environmental Law Center says accounts for one-third of all marshland on the East Coast. The exemptions that would be allowed by the bill, however, include new sea walls, which environmentalists say could clear the way for new development along pristine parts of the coast.

Meanwhile, the Sierra Club and its allies have expressed concern about the power the bill would give to Turner to decide who qualifies for some exemptions to the proposed buffer because Turner was previously a lobbyist for the Sea Island Co., one of the coast’s major developers.

Turner said his agency provided a first draft of the bill but that lawmakers amended it to add additional exemptions. He also noted that he worked for the Sea Island Co. when it was under different ownership.

Efforts to reach Sea Island officials were unsuccessful.

“Any actual conflict of interest, should one arise, could be addressed using my authority to recuse myself,” Turner told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in a statement. “EPD issues many buffer variances each year and they are always done in the interest of protecting the waterways while supporting reasonable development needs.”

Turner said he hopes the bill will provide “legal clarity” and protect the coastal wetlands.

The Southern Environmental Law Center is concerned it will do neither.

“We think putting a marsh buffer protection clearly into statute like this is a great step to protect the coast, but Senate Bill 101 has so many exemptions to the buffer that it’s almost like the exceptions swallow the rule before the rule even goes into effect,” said Gil Rogers, an attorney with the center.

Robert Ramsay, president of the Georgia Conservancy, says there are provisions in the bill that it, too, does not favor.

“Our perspective is while 101 is not perfect, this thing needs to move on for a full vote in the House,” Ramsay said. “Not getting marsh buffer legislation this year, and every day that goes by we’re closer to that, is just not in our opinion a good outcome.”

Sen. Ben Watson, R-Savannah, the bill’s sponsor, said SB 101 is not an end run around regulations.

“We’ve worked with (environmentalists) throughout the process,” Watson said, and noted that “many times when you catch it from both sides it’s a good bill.”

Another potential obstacle to the bill is the powerful chairman of the House Rules Committee, Rep. John Meadows, R-Calhoun. Meadows has great power to determine which bills reach the House floor.

Meadows told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that he isn’t sure the bill is needed.

“I’ve been led to believe we have a 25-foot buffer,” Meadows said, referring to an opinion from House lawyers saying as much.

“I don’t want to pass a bill just for the sake of passing a bill,” he said. “If we already have a buffer, why do we need the bill?”

Sea Island resident Jane Fraser, however, said a bill is needed, just not this bill.

“The point of a buffer is to buffer,” Fraser said. SB 101 as written won’t stop encroachment into the marsh, she said.

“The marsh is the nursery,” she said. “You poison it and you poison our own livelihood. It borders on insanity.”

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