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Stream buffer bill takes heat from its critics

ATLANTA - Environmentalists and advocates for local governments joined forces Thursday to criticize legislation that would roll back stream buffers on some of the most vital waterways in Georgia.

"Your job is to protect our natural resources,'' David Waller of the Georgia Wildlife Federation told members of the Senate Natural Resources and Environment Committee. "This is a giant step backwards in doing that.''

The bill would set stream buffers - strips of land along waterways that must be left in their natural state - at a minimum of 25 feet for most rivers and streams in Georgia and 50 feet for trout streams, the same as a law passed six years ago.

However, the measure would give local governments less flexibility in exceeding those minimums if they choose to do so.

Cities or counties would be required to grant property owners a variance from wider buffers as long as it would not harm water quality or if a wider buffer would effectively prevent the owner from building on the land.

The legislation also would do away with a provision in the current law that requires minimum buffers of 150 feet for river corridors and water-supply reservoirs.

Sen. Chip Pearson, the bill's sponsor, said a 150-foot buffer now in effect upstream from the water intake at the Yahoola Creek Reservoir in hilly Lumpkin County is keeping his constituents from building on the only usable portion of their properties -- flatland running beside the water.

"The effects of these buffers ... are taking 9,400 acres of land on 675 parcels,'' said Pearson, R-Dawsonville.

"When the government comes in and takes your land and doesn't pay you, it rubs salts into the wound that you're still paying taxes on it.''

In lieu of a variance, Pearson's bill also would allow local governments either to buy land located within a stream buffer or ensure that the property remains undeveloped through a conservation easement.

That part of the legislation is similar to an "inverse condemnation'' bill Pearson introduced last year. He chaired a Senate study committee that considered that bill last summer and fall, but it hasn't made headway during the current session.

On Thursday, Newton County Commission Chairman Aaron Varner said his rapidly developing county would be hard-pressed to buy properties along its three rivers.

"Newton County does not have the funds to purchase this land,'' he said. "We have property now that's selling in excess of $70,000 an acre for raw land.''

Varner also complained that Pearson's bill would not apply to the metro-Atlanta counties located within the Metropolitan North Georgia Water Planning District, virtually that entire region.

Newton County, just outside the district, would have to comply with the measure, while adjacent Rockdale County - as part of the district - would not.

But to environmental advocates, the bottom line is that any rollback of stream buffers would degrade fragile waterways already in worse shape than they were before the 2000 law.

Researcher Judy Meyer of the University of Georgia told the committee that a study she conducted found that the General Assembly's decision to shrink minimum buffers along trout streams from 100 feet to 50 feet has raised water temperatures and increased the level of fine sediment in the water.

As a result, she said, the number of juvenile trout in those streams is down 80 percent.

The committee didn't vote on the bill Thursday because it lacked a quorum.

Committee Chairman Ross Tolleson, R-Perry, suggested that Pearson try to reach a compromise with the bill's detractors and return next week.