By RUSSELL JONES
An effort to reclassify the Otter Creek wetlands from a Class II wetlands to Class I is in the preliminary stages as the conservation commissions from Cornwall and Salisbury have formed a steering committee to petition the change. It is still very early on in the process and they still have much work to do, organizers say, including outreach to landowners.
Zapata Courage, a district wetlands ecologist with the state who covers Addison and Rutland counties and part of Bennington County was at the Brandon Selectboard meeting on Monday, May 13, to present information regarding the wetlands to board members.
The Otter Creek wetlands, which include the Cornwall swamp and the Leicester/Whiting swamp, consist of more than 15 linear miles from Cornwall to Brandon and about 15,550 acres. A total of 533 landowners, about 80 in Brandon, would be affected by changing the wetlands from Class II to Class I. Brandon has 2,600 acres of wetlands.
WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE?
A Class II wetland is defined as significant in its contribution to Vermont’s natural heritage, while a Class I wetland’s contribution is defined as exceptional or irreplaceable, and, therefore, merits the highest levels of protection.
In addition, Class II wetlands are generally under a half-acre, often mapped and have a 50-foot buffer zone. Class I wetlands are generally larger — 10 to 730 acres, always mapped and have a 100-foot buffer zone.
There are currently only eight Class I wetlands in Vermont and the largest of those is 730 acres, so the Otter Creek wetlands would dwarf any of the others.
The protections that a Class I wetlands receive are mostly concerning permitting activities within the wetlands, although current allowed or exempted uses would still apply.
“Agriculture and silviculture are permitted,” Courage said. “For most landowners, given the current land use is agriculture or silviculture, there may not be any added regulations.”
That means any landowners who currently farm or log their land in the area would still be allowed to do so. However, if a farm wanted to switch from growing crops to installing solar panels on the land it would require a permit that most likely would not be permitted if it were too close to the wetlands.
To obtain a permit in a Class I wetlands, a person would need to show a compelling need to protect public health and safety.
If a field were left abandoned for long enough that mechanized means were needed to remove any growth on the land, the farmer would likely not be permitted to do so.
“If you abandon your land (in a Class I wetland), you should expect to abandon it in perpetuity,” Courage said.
Little would likely change for municipalities and the mosquito districts, though.
Courage said that this reclassification would not impact the local mosquito districts authority to spread larvicide in the wetlands and, as long as they are following all applicable laws, would not affect adulticide spraying. Courage said that pesticides are regulated by the Agency of Agriculture and the Wetland Program has no regulatory oversight with the mosquito districts.
“For municipalities, existing road infrastructures must be maintained and sometimes need to be widened or replaced. And if it is recognized the work needs to be done for health and safety goals,” she said, “a permit could be issued for these types of projects.”
WHY SEEK CLASS I?
The Otter Creek wetlands provide the area with much-needed flood protection, which is one of the reasons petitioners hope to accomplish the upgrade.
“During Irene, after we saw the high water readings in Brandon, we thought Middlebury’s gauges were malfunctioning because they were so low,” Courage said. “The wetlands allowed all that water to disperse and it’s estimated the wetlands saved Middlebury as much as $1.8 million in flood damage.”
In a study of wetlands, with normal flooding events, on average there is $125k to $450k per year savings in flood prevention.
The wetlands also provide a habitat for animals, insects and reptiles that cannot be replaced. From a wildlife and migratory bird perspective, the wetland supports a diversity of wildlife. Brandon also has an area that has been identified as a wildlife corridor. There are rare, threatened and endangered species in the wetlands.
For these reasons, Courage said, the 15,000 acres of wetlands are deemed “irreplaceable” and the Otter Creek Wetland Complex meets the criteria of a Class I wetland.
A steering committee and a technical committee were developed to drive the petition for the class change. The steering committee is in charge of the petition and seeks to advise the municipalities associated with the area, while the technical committee makes sure they have accurate information.
The first task is to determine how to map the Class I wetland. Town, function or roads, among other ways, can all be used to determine how the wetlands are mapped. The committee has been meeting every two weeks and is reviewing the type of mapping that could be done to determine what makes sense geographically and topographically. The mapping exercise is a big piece of the process. Once that is completed, it will determine the affected landowners.
From the mapping, all landowners would be identified and invited to two informal public meetings. The steering committee would use the meetings to gauge landowner interest. The Brandon Selectboard will send Town Manager Dave Atherton and board chair Seth Hopkins to sit in on the steering committee meetings to be sure Brandon has a voice in the discussions.
The Nature Conservancy has added logistical and operational support to get the meetings together.
“We love our wetlands,” said Eve Frankel, Director of Communications with The Nature Conservancy. “We are a significant landowner of Otter Creek wetlands, roughly 900 acres, and we felt we could provide support for the meetings.”
Frankel said the wetlands are an incredibly valuable natural resources, providing a flood plain to help clean the water, even provide wildlife habitat.
“People often think of working lands as farmland or forest,” Rose Paul, director of Science and Freshwater Programs with the TNC, said. “Wetlands are working lands too.”
Courage said the steering committee has an aggressive timeframe, as they want to have the petition completed by the end of August.
Once completed, the petition would go to the Secretary of State who would submit it to ICAR, or Interagency Committee on Administrative Rules, and ICAR would ultimately submit it to LCAR (Legislative Committee on Administrative Rules.) If there is broad support, it could be adopted as a rule. The whole process could take anywhere from nine to 24 months.
Frankel said that TNC is a large landowner already, and would be interested in owning more land within the wetlands area.
“If any landowners are thinking there is no value in the wetlands that they own, we would be interested in having a conversation with them,” Frankel said.
“Land owners should feel proud that they own such a wonderful area that is so tied into the history and beauty of the state,” Paul said. “We want to match the level of protection for the wetlands with the value it brings to our lands.” The first information hearing will be held on June 25 in Cornwall.