Though the meeting was billed to cover the current Georgia Legislative session, the only thing anyone present wanted to talk about during the two-and-a-half-hour meeting was SB299.
SB299, introduced by Gooch at the beginning of the current session, would allow local governments to submit watershed protection plans to Environmental Protection Department (EPD) rather than adopting the current regulation requiring 300-foot buffers from streams within seven miles of a public drinking water source.
Gooch told those gathered that SB299 had been changed in response to concerns voiced by constituents before being addressed in the Senate Natural Resources & Environment Committee last week.
"Basically, we just tightened up the language to make people feel more comfortable," Gooch said.
A line referencing maintaining water quality standards so that it was treatable was removed, even though, Gooch said, the line was taken directly from the rules.
"The environmentalist were concerned with that," he said.
The bill was amended to include language that no change would be made to the existing 50-foot buffers for trout streams.
"That was Trout Unlimited's concern. I explained that the 50-foot buffer is in another Code section, but they wanted to see it in writing," Gooch said.
He also changed the word "may" to "shall" in reference to the necessity that watershed protection plans be approved by EPD.
"This bill only does one thing," Gooch said. "It requires cities and counties with permitting powers to create a watershed protection plan and submit it to EPD. Environmentalists should be one board with this legislation. Right now we don't have any protections in place here in
Lumpkin County. This bill is an attempt to balance the needs of the environment with people's property rights. The people of Lumpkin County and other North Georgia counties have been dealing with this for 14 years."
"It's a delicate balance between protecting the environment and protecting property rights," said Lumpkin County Commissioner Clarence Stowers, who was present at the meeting along with the other board members.
Stowers also pointed out that the city of Dahlonega won awards for its water quality even before the 50-foot trout stream buffers were put in place.
Commissioner Doug Sherrill told the audience he was in favor of the bill.
"It's a balanced approach," he said.
As part of his job as a professional planner Sherrill draws buffers that must be approved by EPD.
"There is science to a buffer. The problem comes from arbitrary and capricious numbers. There are a lot of variables that are not considered-density, for one. "A buffer is not a fix-all," Sherrill said.
SB299 allows local governments to design watershed protection plans that are specific to the area. To take 300 feet and still expect you to pay taxes on it is unconstitutional."
Stowers pointed out that Lumpkin County only allows one house per acre.
"Density is not a problem here," he said.
Several people were present to voice objections to the bill. Local resident Frank Gilkeson was the first to speak when the floor was opened up for comments and questions. One of his concerns, he said, was the inaccurate information being spread.
"There is no 300 foot buffer rule," he said. "There are three separate EPD rules, one for a 100-foot vegetative stream buffer; then there's a 150-foot impervious surface setback on either side of streams; and one that says you can't have a septic tank within 150 feet of a stream."
Sherrill agreed Gilkeson was correct in his delineation between buffers and setbacks. However, he said, "it's effectively a taking of 300 feet, whatever you call it. People can't do anything within that area."
Gilkeson also said SB299 proponents weren't "really worrying about the little guy who can't build a cabin No, let's worry about the big guy who wants to build a subdivision with a bunch of houses. It is really important to follow the money on this. Think like a developer when you consider this bill. They will be the big winners."
Gary Hopkins wanted to know who would be putting together a local watershed protection plan. He also expressed his concern that even if the plan had to be approved by EPD, its board members would not do their job.
"And now you want to put it on the local level? I just don't see how Lumpkin County, or any county, can do it," he said.
Mark Shearer said he has multiple concerns about any plan that deals with the county's streams, especially Yahoola Creek, which feeds the county's drinking water reservoir. Shearer said he cleaned Yahoola Creek from his home about two miles down to the reservoir when he first moved to the county.
"You wouldn't believe the trash I found-plus the sedimentation-tons and tons of it. I've watched the creek when it rains and I see what comes down it.
It's chocolate brown. Pretty soon the reservoir will have to be dredged out.
My question is, if this bill passes, would the water system have to be monitored or will things stay as they are, and will the county's plan be submitted to the public first?"
"If water moves more than two feet per second it will pick up dirt and sediment-it's gonna happen, even it you've got a 500-foot buffer. So yes, we will eventually have to dredge the reservoir," Dahlonega's water treatment plant manager John Jarrard told Shearer. "Camp Merrill has just one unoccupied cabin above it, when it rains it runs mud, blood red."
As for who will develop the plan, Gooch said the plan would be crafted by planners, hydrologists and others with knowledge of the information and technology that has been learned since the original act was put in place in 1989.
"Environmentalists really should be on board with this. This will have some teeth," Gooch said. "The local government has citation powers, and when they cite someone for violating the rules, those people go before a judge."
Eugene Elander said the bill has some good features, "but also some problems. I feel the bill is hasty, and I think it should go back to committee. It's not all that simple."
"We've studied this for 14 years," Gooch said. "This doesn't solve the problem. It just gives us the opportunity to fix it."
"No one knows if 50-foot, 100-foot, 300-foot or even 500-foot buffers are best. But do we want an arbitrary number or local level monitoring, with oversight from the state? Nothing we have now scares me more than not having 300-foot buffers," said David Miller.
"Stream buffers are important, and there is science behind them. The science says the larger the buffer, the better the protection," said Joe Cook, executive director and Riverkeeper of the Coosa River Basin Initiative.
Cook pointed out that 150-foot buffers on both sides of streams is not mandated. The Department of Natural Resources approved a compromise offering cities an counties the option of adopting 100-foot buffers (on either side of a stream) outside of one mile of the drinking water source, then 75-feet up to seven miles.
"Lumpkin County could have implemented this plan for years," Cook said.
Cook admitted there are additional actions the county must take to qualify for for the reduced buffers.
And those actions, Jarrard said, "cost money" to implement.
"The additional is too expensive. And it is still a wrongful taking,"
Stowers said. "We've been held hostage by this thing for 10 years. It's time to do something and move on."
Many of those present spoke in favor of the bill, relating their personal circumstances. One man with numerous wet-weather streams on his property said there was so much overlap there would be no place for his children to build a house.
"I want to be able to leave my property to my children for them to use," he said.
One man compared setting the buffer at the arbitrary number of 300 feet to
setting a speed limit of 35 mph. "You say the 300-foot buffer will reduce pollution. Well, if we lower the speed limit to 35 mph we'll have a lot less accidents. Now 35 mph might make sense in some places, but not in others," he said. "I was on the other side of this yesterday. But you are trying to do something that's better than nothing," said Suzanne Waller.
Waller said she also liked the idea of having the plan crafted by local government.
"I can get to these guys," she said, indicating the BOC. "I can't get to the EPD board."
SB299 passed the Senate last week and has been sent to the House Natural Resources and Environmental Committee. The House has the opportunity to make amendments or deletions or pass it as it came to them. If changes are made, it will come back to the Senate for approval prior to going to the governor for his signature.