Legislative fix proposed for marsh buffers
Savannah Morning News
By Mary Landers
January 4, 2015
When coastal lawmakers head to Atlanta for the start of the legislative session on Jan. 12, they’ll go with the salt marsh on their minds.
With the support of a coalition of environmental groups and state regulators, they plan to restore protections the salt marsh lost in April when Environmental Protection Division Director Jud Turner issued a memo that overturned a long-standing policy requiring a 25-foot buffer of vegetation along the salt marsh.
At the time of the memo and in the months since, Turner has maintained he was compelled to issue it because the previous policy, in place for about a decade, wasn’t supported by the language of the Erosion & Sedimentation Act.
It wouldn’t have stood up in court, said Turner, who’s an attorney, and he didn’t want to waste taxpayer money arguing a losing case. Faced with a potential legal challenge from Chatham County over the construction of the Turner Creek boat ramp, Turner issued the ironically timed memo on Earth Day.
“I was uncomfortable with taking taxpayers’ dollars and arguing a statute I was not comfortable with,” Turner said. “Chatham had allies all down the coast. Glynn for years said they’re not sure about this. The files are replete with those protestations from local issuing authorities.”
Buffers act to protect the marsh by trapping sediments and pollution and reducing erosion. They also provide wildlife habitat. And despite its short coastline, Georgia has a lot of salt marsh to protect. By one widely cited measure the Peach State, with its robust tidal range, boasts one-third of the salt marsh remaining on the U.S. East Coast.
The Erosion & Sedimentation Act spells out how all buffers around state waters should be measured using as a starting point “wrested” vegetation, plants pulled or twisted by water’s movement. That works well in fast moving freshwater streams, but is a head scratcher in the languid edges of the salt marsh.
With input from the Georgia Water Coalition — a group of more than 200 environmental and other organizations concerned with water management — EPD wrote draft language to create a dedicated salt marsh buffer and a way to measure it.
Officials at the EPD authored the proposed changes to the Erosion & Sedimentation Act with an eye toward codifying the previous practice, said Bert Langley, EPD director of compliance.
“The whole point of what we’re trying to do is reset the clock and put it back to where we’re regulating the marsh buffers legally by the jurisdictional line,” he said, referring to the boundary between the marsh and higher ground. “What we’re trying carefully to do is not expand or contract the provisions of the Erosion & Sedimentation Act.”
Megan Desrosiers, executive director of the nonprofit One Hundred Miles, which represented the water coalition in talks with the EPD, said all involved agreed to limit the issue to the salt marsh.
“It adds a new category for buffers in the coastal marshlands,” she said. “It’s not more protective for buffers anywhere else in the state. It’s not a debate about wrested vegetation anymore.”
The Georgia Supreme Court will hear oral arguments Monday in the Tired Creek case, which seeks to clarify the buffer issue for freshwater wetlands.
Coastal lawmakers are largely on board with the salt marsh buffer, with just a few tweaks to be made to the proposed language, said state Rep. Ron Stephens (R-Savannah), dean of the Chatham delegation.
However, no one has stepped up as an official sponsor for a bill incorporating the changes. The proposed changes would allow exceptions for the construction of drainage structures or roadway drainage structures, but Stephens and other lawmakers want an additional provision to allow sewerage breaks that occur in the marsh buffer to be fixed without a permit.
“With a sewer break you don’t want them to have to go through the process of permitting from the EPD to fix something that needs to be fixed right away,” Stephens said. “That’s the only holdup myself and Ben Watson have right now. We’re very pro getting this thing done and getting this hard coded back into law.” At a recent Chatham County Commission workshop, County Attorney Jon Hart told commissioners he’d like to see additional exemptions for county roads and drainage projects to make certain they don’t get tangled up in the permitting process again. Many of Chatham’s roads follow the marsh so closely that they’re in the buffer and have been for decades, he said.
“If you start the marsh buffer 25 feet from the jurisdictional line, you basically put the entire road in the jurisdictional buffer,” he said. “What are you protecting, the asphalt?”
But in an interview, Desrosiers said roads shouldn’t be a problem. They’re already specifically exempted in the existing Erosion & Sedimentation Act.
Langley sees broad support for salt marsh protections.
“There may be some resistance, but in general I think people are united that the coastal marshes are so important that they need buffers,” he said. “I certainly wouldn’t be on the side of arguing that the salt marshes don’t need buffers.”
MARSH BUFFER TOWN HALLS
State Sen. William Ligon,R-Brunswick, is joining other coastal lawmakers to host two town hall meetings this week:
5:30 p.m. Monday
Darien-McIntosh Chamber of Commerce
1111 Magnolia Bluff Way, Suite 205, Darien
Old City Hall
1229 Newcastle St., Brunswick