Senate committee approves revamped stream buffer bill

ATLANTA - A Senate committee Thursday approved legislation that would allow homeowners to build within certain stream buffers after more than 100 north Georgia residents rallied outside the Capitol.

Holding aloft signs with such messages as "Protect Property Rights,'' homeowners from half a dozen counties cheered as their state and local elected representatives touted the bill.

"We want clean water and our streams protected,'' said Steve Gooch, chairman of the Lumpkin County Commission. "But we also want the rights of the property owners protected in the process.''

The crowd then went inside the Capitol, where the Senate Natural Resources and Environment Committee took up a far different version of a bill first aired last week.

The earlier version of the bill would have done away with a provision in current law that requires minimum protective buffers 150 feet wide along water-supply reservoirs upstream of intakes, a provision strongly opposed by environmental groups.

It also would have forced cities and counties wishing to provide greater protection than 25 feet - the minimum buffer set by the state for most streams - to compensate landowners affected by that decision.

Sen. Chip Pearson, R-Dawsonville, the bill's sponsor, has been pushing for compensation for months because many of his constituents in hilly Lumpkin County can't build anywhere but on the flat part of their properties directly abutting the local reservoir.

But that provision upset local government officials across Georgia, who argued they couldn't afford such payouts to landowners in their communities.

Local leaders outside of the Atlanta area also were unhappy that the bill would not apply to the metro region's 16-county water planning district.

After going back to the drawing board, Pearson brought out a new version of the bill Thursday doing away with the compensation provision.

Instead, property owners would be allowed to build single-family homes inside buffers larger than the state minimum if the lot is at least 2 acres and if they keep their septic tank drains outside the buffer.

The legislation also would let landowners get a variance from the state if they could show that building inside the buffer would not pollute the water.

Taking local governments off the hook for compensating property owners placated advocates for cities and counties, who reversed their earlier stand on Thursday and endorsed the bill.

"We feel this is a reasonable compromise ... local governments can work with,'' said Tom Gehl of the Georgia Municipal Association.

Environmentalists agreed the new version of Pearson's bill is better than the earlier proposal.

But Mark Woodall, legislative chairman for the Georgia chapter of the Sierra Club, said allowing homeowners in north Georgia to get around buffer requirements through either exemptions or variances would leave downstream property owners with less protection from polluted drinking water.

"I don't know how you can design stormwater protection that's better than a buffer,'' he said.

The committee passed the bill 5-2, with Republican members supporting it and Democrats voting no.

It could hit the Senate floor as early as next week.