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Senate approves stream buffer bill

ATLANTA - Landowners could build near drinking water reservoirs in Georgia in certain circumstances under legislation approved by the Senate on Wednesday.

The bill, which passed 33-16 and now goes to the House, is designed primarily to help property owners in North Georgia, where the terrain is so hilly that much of the flat land best suited for building is within 150 feet of vital drinking water supplies.

"Drinking water is vital to every family, but property rights also are vital to our foundation of freedom and independence,'' said Sen. Chip Pearson, R-Dawsonville, the bill's sponsor.

The legislation would allow landowners to build single-family homes inside the state-mandated 150-foot buffer for reservoirs if the lot is at least two acres and if they keep their septic tank drains outside the buffer.

The bill also would allow property owners to get around the buffer requirement by seeking a variance from the state Environmental Protection Division. To qualify for a variance, they would have to show that the construction would not harm water quality downstream.

The version of the bill passed by the Senate is much narrower in scope than the legislation Pearson introduced last month.

After strong opposition from city and county governments, he agreed to drop a provision that would have allowed property owners barred from building on their land because of a buffer requirement to collect compensation from their local government.

Pearson's original bill also would have applied to 25-, 50- and 100-foot buffers set by the state for smaller rivers and streams across Georgia, including trout streams.

The measure also exempts the 16 metro Atlanta counties that make up the Metropolitan North Georgia Water Planning District, created by the General Assembly five years ago.

"They have their own program in place,'' Pearson said. "We respect that.''

Even with the changes, however, Sen. Seth Harp argued that Pearson's bill would reduce the state's ability to protect property owners downstream from the effects of construction inside reservoir buffers upstream.

Harp, R-Midland, has often complained that the rapidly growing Atlanta region takes so much water from the Chattahoochee region that downstream residents are left with low stream flows and high levels of water pollution.

"This highlights the continuing saga of north versus south, the haves and have-nots of water,'' he said.

But Harp was a minority voice among Senate Republicans. Only he and one other GOP senator joined 14 Demo-crats opposing the bill.