What Vermont Property Owners Need To Know About The New Shoreland Protection Act

Jul 1, 2014

A new law takes effect today that requires a permit for new development within 250 feet of lakes, and the shoreland protection act was opposed by some of the state’s lake associations.

Deb Markowitz, Secretary of the Agency of Natural Resources, said while there was some opposition, other lake associations were in favor of the act.

“Some landowners were worried about it and I would say continue to be worried about it, but the reason so many lake associations are in support of the law is that they’ve noticed there’s this disturbing trend where people are buying the traditional Vermont camps that are set back from the lakeshore and they’re making them year round and bringing it right down to the lakeshore and that impacts water quality, it impacts water habitat, it impacts all of the lakeshore owners around that lake because it will degrade the quality of the lake.” Markowitz noted that the Environmental Protection Agency has identified Vermont’s small lakes and ponds as being at risk, especially compared with neighboring states that have shoreland protections in place.

The law limits the amount of de-vegetation, but not in a particular location

From the state’s website, “Any new development, redevelopment, or clearing of a property, may require a permit or registration,” and the following exemptions are listed:

  • Maintenance of existing buildings, gardens, and lawns, without enlarging them.
  • Creation of a single six foot wide footpath to access the lake.
  • Re-construction of existing impervious areas without increasing or changing the current footprint, such as rebuilding a house, deck, or driveway within the exact same footprint.
  • Removal of 250 square feet of vegetation under three feet in height, 25 feet from the mean water level, is allowed as long as the Vegetation Management Practices are met and the duff layer is not removed.
  • Tree removal and pruning within 100 feet of the mean water level using the Vegetation Management Practices.

“You have to have a certain diameter of woody material, like trees. And you can do it as seven small trees, or two big trees, depending on how you want to do it,” Markowitz said.

“The law grandfathers existing properties, and to the extent that a property owner is going to add more impervious surface, that’s the surface that stormwater runs off of then these rules may apply, but a lot of the de minimis activities that you might do, like putting in a path to the water, or lawn maintenance, they’ll be exempt. There’s a large range of practical exemptions.

Some towns already regulate the shoreline, and the law allows the authority to be delegated to towns that have functionally equivalent bylaws or ordinances. Markowitz said the Vermont League of Cities and Towns provided a sample ordinance many years ago and that sample ordinance meets the standard of the law. “So to the extent that towns have adopted that standard over the years, they’ll be in pretty good shape,” Markowitz said.

Enforcement will fall to towns if they have delegated authority, and if not delegated, the state will enforce the law.

Markowtiz said in the two years that it took the law to pass, changes were made that brought many more people in support of the law.

“There will, of course, always still be some folks who object because people want to do whatever they want on their property and they don’t want the state or town or anybody telling them what they can or can’t do. And there’s concerns about having  more bureaucracy. Our approach in implementation is really to have the same spirit of reasonableness and balance that informed the legislative process,” Markowitz said.  

Markowitz said the law will be significant to the health of the smaller lakes and ponds. “A real risk to the water quality in these lakes and ponds is the de-vegetation of the shoreline land. Fish need shade. The bugs and biota that live in a lake and make it a healthy lake need woody debris along the edge, which comes from the vegetation and of course having vegetation along the shoreland helps prevent polluted stormwater from getting into the lake.”