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Assembly passes relaxed wetlands regulation

Feb. 23, 2012 | 0 comments

In another late-night session Tuesday (Feb. 21), the Assembly approved major changes to wetlands regulations to ease restrictions over development in Wisconsin.

The bill passed on a voice vote and now goes to Gov. Scott Walker, who has said he will sign it. The Assembly also unanimously passed legislation Tuesday adding cellphone text messages to the state's no-call list.

The vote Tuesday on the wetlands legislation follows action in the state Senate on Feb. 15, when senators voted, 17-15, to approve the wetlands bill.

Realtors, builders and property rights advocates pushed for the legislation, saying current law hamstrings development. The aim, they said, was to balance environmental interests and the rights of property owners.

But groups such as the Wisconsin Wetlands Association and Trout Unlimited said the changes leaned too heavily toward allowing wetland destruction and would cause long-term harm in many locales.

In a statement, Walker said he looked forward to signing the wetlands bill.

"I support updating regulations related to wetlands and specifically looking at balancing the need for economic growth with the need to protect Wisconsin's pristine natural resources," Walker said.

But Rep. Fred Clark (D-Baraboo) said the bill would keep the Department of Natural Resources from protecting the public interest.

"This bill is a solution in search of a problem," Clark said. "There is not a permitting problem with wetlands in this state."

Wetlands are important for flood control and protecting the ecosystem and are guarded by state and federal laws. The DNR estimates the state has lost millions of acres of wetlands since settlement days, or about half of the total original acreage.

Generally, landowners are required to avoid disturbing such landscapes as much as possible. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will continue to regulate wetlands on navigable waters. But on land, where the state regulates wetlands, the legislation would weaken restrictions.

A key change gives the DNR and landowners the option to consider creating wetlands in a new area - known as mitigation - if it's determined that a project has no place else to go. Mitigation has been an option in the past, but advocates for the change complained it was employed only as a last resort.

Under the bill, developers would not be required to look for suitable sites elsewhere. It also establishes a balancing test that evaluates the economic and environmental effect of a project. Advocates of the bill say the changes would allow the DNR to spend more time on complicated projects.

The Assembly also voted, 94-0, to expand the state's no-call list, which already covers both landlines and cellphones, to include text messages. The bill now goes to Walker.

Reprinted with permission from the Journal Sentinel.

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