League of Cities & Towns announces new model for shoreland protection: Property owners beware

by Rob Roper

The Vermont League of Cities & Towns recently released its Model Lake Shoreland Protection District Bylaw and Technical Paper Number 6, Protecting Vermont’s Lakes through Shoreland District Zoning. According to the press release:

These new publications provide municipalities with a clear-cut framework that is simple to develop and administer. The Model Lake Shoreland Protection District Bylaw includes measures such as setbacks, clearing limitations, vegetation protection, land disturbance management, and impervious area standards to protect shoreland buffers and water quality from the adverse impacts of poorly planned lakeshore development. The lake shoreland model language can be easily incorporated into an existing land use regulation and adapted to meet the unique conditions of your community.

Very easily. The pre-written legal language opens with the sentence, “This bylaw is adopted by the Town of ____________ under authority of 24 V.S.A. § 4424, 24,” etc… Just fill in the name of your town. The result would be that affected property owners would no longer have very much say over how they use their property.

If adopted, these regulations would apply to , “…all land in the Town of ____________ …. The width of land measured horizontally from the Mean WaterLevel to at least 500 feet but no more than 1000 feet from all Lakes.” Also, “The width of land measured horizontally from the MeanWater Level at least 100 feet from all Lakes. The Shoreland Buffer Resource Zone may exceed100 feet if it includes a Bluff and/or a Steep Slope as defined in this Section. In that case, theShoreland Buffer Resource Zone shall include the entire Bluff and/or Steep Slope and all landlocated at least 25 feet from the top of the Bluff and/or Steep Slope.”

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Basically, the fourteen pages of regulations say that if you own waterfront property, you can’t cut down trees to improved your view, build or improve any structures on the site outside of some very onerous specifications, alter the property in any way, and certainly not without a great deal of hassle for the property owner. So really, what’s the point of living by a lake?

One section on the cutting of trees reads, for example,

Within the Shoreland Buffer Resource Zone, tree coverage shall be managed with a 25×25foot grid and points system. The trees within each segment shall be given points according totheir diameter at 4.5 feet off the ground (DBH). Tree coverage must total 12 points in eachgrid. Trees and saplings may be cut as long as the sum of the scores for the remaining treesand saplings in the grid segment is at least 12 points.

Can’t figure out what that means? You better, because the only allowable reasons for cutting a trees are to remove threats to personal safety or structures. How is that determined? Well, the burden of proof is on the property owner. Proof that can be obtained through, “written certification signed by an individual with knowledge and experience in assessingtree health – such as a licensed forester, certified arborist, or licensed landscape architect- that the trees and limbs that were removed were unsafe.”

Without that proof, “any fine or injunctive order levied against the property owner, removal of treesor saplings in violation of this section shall require implementation of a shoreland restorationplan designed by a qualified professional…”

But don’t worry. Even though you cannot see the water from your lakeshore cabin, you can certainly access it, by, “Cutting of shrubs or groundcover smaller than 4 inches in diameter for an access footpathnot to exceed a cleared width of six feet, with no imported fill, and constructed so as toprevent erosion, avoid soil disturbance and disperse runoff into vegetated areas usingzigzag or switchback construction. The construction shall not involve earth movingequipment and stumps and roots must remain intact.”

We won’t even get into the section on structures in this article, as it would take up too much space. Just to say that if you own shorefront property and have an existing structure on that property, consider it to have a bullseye on it. Yes, you can repair it, but, “repair does not include reconstruction.” So, if say the lake were to flood and destroy your grandfathered summer fishing cabin, you’re pretty much out of luck. But, of course, when would such an event ever occur in our lifetimes?