By Elizabeth Humstone
We have a problem. The quality of Vermont’s lakes is becoming degraded, and poor shoreland development is one significant cause. But now we have an opportunity to slow, and even reverse, this trend with a bill pending in the Legislature.
Vermont has over 800 lakes and ponds that are significant assets to our state. They not only provide opportunities for swimming, boating, fishing, and skating but also offer drinking water, wildlife habitat, and protection from flood damage. However, according to a national lake condition assessment by the US Environmental Protection Agency, 82 percent of our shorelands are in fair to poor condition, and that can threaten public health, safety, and recreation and tourism.
As a shoreland property owner and avid user of Lake Champlain’s significant resources, I am concerned about the threats to our water bodies. In my town, good development regulations prevent excessive shoreline clearing, reducing water pollution and habitat loss. These requirements protect property values and enjoyment of the lake for me as well as my neighbors.
Extreme weather events in the past several years, accompanied by significant fluctuations in water levels, have caused shoreline erosion and damage to property from flooding. Where excessive cutting and clearing has occurred for development, there is notable evidence of soil loss, destruction of wildlife habitat and increased water pollution. In many places, the replacement of natural vegetation with hard surfaces, like roofs and paved driveways built too close to lakes has accelerated the flow of soil and contaminants into the water.
We know that healthy, vegetated shorelines are good for wildlife. For instance, largemouth bass, one of Vermont’s most important game fish, prefer to nest near undeveloped shores rather than developed shores. Swimming and boating are more enjoyable where water is clear. Views of shorelines are more pleasing where trees and shrubs are visible and scars from development are obscured.
Today, only about a quarter of Vermont municipalities have local standards to protect lakes and ponds. Other state environmental laws, such as Act 250, do not apply to most shoreline development. The Vermont Agency of Natural Resources uses education and technical assistance to try to get property owners and towns to act. Conservation organizations, such as the Lake Champlain Land Trust, Vermont Land Trust and the Nature Conservancy, protect particularly vulnerable shoreland areas. Yet, problems persist with erosion, habitat loss, and deteriorating water quality.
To step up efforts to protect Vermont’s lakes, last year the Vermont House of Representatives passed H.526 that would result in clear but reasonable standards to regulate development on lakeshores while protecting property owners’ rights to access, use of and views of lakes and ponds. (New Hampshire and Maine both have statewide shoreland protections similar to what Vermont is considering.) Towns, like mine, that have already taken steps to protect lakeshores would not be affected by the legislation. Under the bill, development could still take place in sensitive shoreline areas but with added protections against excessive cutting and clearing and with appropriate setbacks from water bodies.
The legislation is not designed to stop development on our lakeshores. Nor will it prevent property owners from mowing their lawns or appropriately thinning trees for views. Rather, it will provide consistent standards that major improvements will have to meet.
I know firsthand that it is possible to thoroughly enjoy all the amenities of a lake – swimming, boating, and sunset vistas – with shoreland restrictions in place. Plus, I have the added benefit of knowing that my property values are protected, my family’s drinking water is safer, the water we swim in is cleaner, and the mink we see playing along the shore will be there for years to come.
The writer is the chair of the board of directors of the Vermont Natural Resources Council. She lives in Charlotte.