GOP lawmakers propose bill shrinking natural resource areas

Republican lawmakers began circulating a bill this week that would ease the regulatory path for development on bodies of water.

State Sen. Frank Lasee and state Rep. Adam Jarchow wrote in a memo to their fellow legislators seeking co-sponsors that the bill would facilitate development, leading to more jobs.

“This (legislation) focuses on cleaning up the agency regulations and state laws that have been making Wisconsin less competitive for both residential and commercial growth,” the lawmakers wrote.

Amber Meyer Smith, a lobbyist for environmental advocacy group Clean Wisconsin, called the bill troubling and said it will lead to more development of wetlands.

“These appear to be pretty sweeping changes that are going to have a negative effect on water quality across Wisconsin,” she said. “There are ramifications to building in water bodies, to be sure. With the water quality problems we’re already facing, it’s not a time we should be relaxing our standards.”

Currently, the Department of Natural Resources’ board can designate a number of water bodies as areas of special natural resource interest where construction projects require permits. The types of water bodies include trout streams; surface waters identified as an outstanding or exceptional resource water; waters that contain endangered or threatened species; wild rice waters; wild or scenic rivers; and ecologically significant coastal wetlands.

Under the bill, the designation could apply only to portions of waters with endangered species, wild rice waters, coastal wetlands and wild or scenic rivers.

The Legislature’s budget committee, not the DNR board, would approve such designations.

The bill also directs the DNR to issue general permits allowing limited dredging on inland lakes and exempts permits for dredging man-made waterways such as cranberry bogs and stormwater ponds.

Projects that discharge materials into wetlands would be exempt from permits if the material originates from a roadside ditch or a stormwater retention basin. The DNR also would have to allow stormwater management ponds in waterways as a means for property owners to achieve nonpoint pollution standards.

Lasee and Jarchow also began circulating a companion bill that would overhauls a number of other property-related regulations. That proposal prohibits counties from enacting countywide development bans, requires that if a local ordinance is unclear a judge must rule in the property owner’s favor and prohibits local governments from restricting the ability of property owners to sell or transfer their titles.

The bills’ chances are unclear.

A spokeswoman for Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald didn’t immediately respond to an email.

Kit Beyer, a spokeswoman for Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, said Vos generally supports efforts “to strike a balance between private property rights and protecting the environment” but wants to take a closer look at the bills and talk with GOP members before moving forward on them.

Lawmakers are currently on their holiday break. Neither house is scheduled to reconvene until at least mid-January.

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