Lawmakers on Wednesday heard public testimony on a bill that would let dredgers dispose of fill material in certain types of wetlands without first obtaining a permit. And some of the support, at least, is coming from a surprising source – environmental groups.
If adopted by the full Legislature and signed by the governor, Senate Bill 320 would expand the exception to permitting requirements that now exists for artificial wetlands. Such wetlands are generally already exempt, but not if the DNR has deemed them to have significant functional value.
Senate Bill 320, sponsored by state Rep. Andre Jacque, R-DePere, and Sen. Van Wanggaard, R-Racine, would lay out a blanket exception for all artificial wetlands.
The legislation would define an artificial wetland as one that was inadvertently created by someone’s modification of the landscape or the land’s hydrology and that lies in a place where no wetland or stream existed before. The definition would exclude wetlands subject to federal jurisdiction and wetlands that are either places where fish spawn or that lead to places where fish spawn.
Proponents say the change would eliminate various roadblocks that are now hindering development in the state.
At a public hearing held on Wednesday before the Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Energy, Jacque said the bill comes in response to instances he has learned of in which wetlands have been inadvertently created on construction sites or private land. Because of the state’s current laws governing wetland protection, the appearance of those wetlands caused the projects either to be delayed or shut down.
“I have heard dozens and dozens of real-life examples that would be helped by this legislation,” he said.
In Jacque’s own district, in the village of Wrightstown, Jacque learned of a case in which dirt piles left in the middle of a particular piece of land had allowed a wetland to form and cattails to spring up. That site, he said, was later deemed off limits to developers.
Wanggard said the rules became particularly onerous in the years following the country’s latest recession. The downturn caused various development projects in places around the state to stall. With no one working on or maintaining those sites for years, artificial wetlands were allowed to form. By the time the economy had improved, development had become prohibited in many places, Wanggard said.
“I think people are understanding this as a good piece of legislation to let the wetlands be dealt with the way they should be,” he said.
Jacque and Wangaard said they did not shut out environmental groups when working on the bill. An amendment they later added was in fact made to incorporate some of those groups’ suggestions.
The amendment would both provide a more precise definition of an artificial wetland and lay out a process the state DNR would have to follow when deciding if a particular wetland counts as being artificial. The process would require developers to notify the DNR 15 working days before they start working on a project that would fill a wetland. It would also give the DNR 15 days to issue a decision on whether a wetland falls into the artificial category.
Elsewhere, the amendment would stipulate that wetlands formed to mitigate the loss of a natural wetland elsewhere would not be exempt from the permitting requirements.
Erin O’Brien, policy director of the Wetlands Association of Wisconsin, said Wednesday that her organization had worked on the amendment with both Jacque and Wanggaard, as well as other groups such as the state DNR. She said the amendment lays out a reasonable time frame for the DNR to make decisions and makes clearer the difference between wetlands and lands that are wet. O’Brien said her group is urging the committee to pass the bill as amended.
“We support both the intent and substance of this bill,” she said. “It is a clean bill in that it provides a reasonably scoped response to a well-understood problem.”
Groups that registered in favor of the bill on Wednesday included the Wisconsin Transportation Builders Association, the Wisconsin Wildlife Association and the Wisconsin chapter of the Nature Conservancy. Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce is also registered in favor of the bill, though it opposes the amendment.
Should the bill get a favorable recommendation from the committee, its next stop will be the full Legislature.Follow @erikastrebel