25-foot buffer rule passes Senate, but environmentalists unhappy

Legislation requiring a 25-foot buffer around the saltwater marshes of Georgia’s coast passed the state Senate on Monday, despite concerns from environmental groups that it carves out too many exemptions for development.

Senate Bill 101 is essentially still a work in progress as it now heads to the state House. It’s already been shaped by negotiations among developers, regulators, environmental groups and local governments.

The bill follows a decision made last year by Jud Turner, the director of Georgia’s Environmental Protection Division, to remove a decade-long directive requiring buffers for marshlands along most of the Georgia coast. The buffers are considered important because they help reduce erosion and filter land-based pollutants such as fertilizer and insecticides.

In April, Turner said the state would no longer apply a 25-foot buffer to new coastal development, upsetting conservationists who said the change would open the door to widespread development along Georgia’s coast. The problem stemmed from what Turner viewed as a conflict between the interpretations of two existing state laws: the Coastal Marshlands Protection Act and the Sedimentation Act.

Turner had said he wanted lawmakers to clarify their intentions about how the buffer should be applied, which they are doing with SB 101. It sets new rules for when the buffer rule should be applied and how some exemptions may be made under certain circumstances.

The exemptions allowed by the bill, however, include new seawalls — which environmentalists say could clear the way for new development along pristine parts of the coast.

Business leaders including the Georgia Chamber, however, support the bill as it’s now written and say it will reduce costs and ease permitting for new projects or maintenance.

The bill’s sponsor is state Sen. Ben Watson, R-Savannah. It passed on a 46-4 vote.

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