Assembly panel approves bill to relax wetland regulations
MADISON - Wisconsin Republicans moved closer Tuesday toward relaxing wetland development regulations, passing a bill out of committee that would allow developers to fill state wetlands without permits and scale back mitigation requirements.
The GOP-controlled Assembly Committee on Regulatory Licensing Reform voted 6-3 along party lines to approve the bill. The vote clears the way for a full Assembly vote.
Aides to Republican Majority Leader Jim Steineke, the bill's chief Assembly author, said he expects to schedule a floor vote sometime this month.
Committee Democrats warned the measure would result in widespread loss of wetlands, noting a host of outdoor and conservation groups oppose the proposal.
"Once these wetlands are paved over, there's no going back," Rep. Jonathan Brostoff of Milwaukee said. "I hope we all take a deep breath and understand these implications."
Republican Rep. Romaine Quinn of Barron countered that small towns and businesses can't expand because they can't afford mitigation costs to build on wetlands.
"This bill is absolutely critical for rural areas that are struggling to develop with their limited resources," he said.
Republicans and their allies in the construction industry have long groused about the state Department of Natural Resources' wetland permitting process, saying it stymies business expansion.
Under the bill, developers could fill up to an acre of urban wetlands and up to 3 acres per parcel of wetlands outside urban areas if the work is related to building an agricultural structure as long as the activity doesn't disturb rare and high-quality wetlands. They also could fill any artificial wetland without a permit.
The proposal also walks back mitigation requirements.
Right now, developers have three choices: buy or apply credits from a mitigation bank; create 1.2 new wetland acres for every acre destroyed within the same watershed or a half-mile of the site; or pay into a fund the DNR uses to restore wetlands.
Under the bill, developers wouldn't have to mitigate the first 1.5 acres of non-urban wetlands they destroy. The DNR would have to use a third of its restoration fund to create a grant program for nonprofit groups working on wetland restoration projects on land acquired through the state stewardship program.
An earlier version of the bill would have allowed developers to fill state wetlands anywhere in Wisconsin without a permit. Steineke issued a statement Thursday saying the new iteration was designed to address opponents' concerns and preserves quality wetlands and duck habitats.
Ducks Unlimited has emerged as one of the bill's highest-profile opponents, warning that destroying wetlands will increase flooding and ruin wildlife habitat. Government Affairs Representative Kyle Rorah said the organization was disappointed with the committee vote.
The bill is AB 547.