Georgia’s coastal marshland buffer zone again protected by state rules

By David Pendered

Georgia has a new set of rules to govern development along the Georgia coast, and they provide the state with statutory authority to enforce a 25-foot salt marsh buffer.

Georgia marshland

Georgia’s marshlands, including this stretch along the
Duplin River, are again protected by a 25-foot buffer the state can enforce. Credit: Steve Pennings via gce-iter.marsci.uga.edu

The salt marsh buffer became an issue in 2014, following a ruling by state Attorney General Sam Olens. The matter involved Georgia’s Erosion and Sedimentation Act of 1975.

The Georgia Conservancy provides a report that includes this snapshot of the history of the matter:

  • “For 40 years … the E&S Act has sheltered our coastline, fostered tourism and incubated our commercial and recreational fisheries.
  • “On April 22, 2014 (Earth Day), the state Attorney General determined that a key element of the E&S Act, which the state Environmental Protection Division (EPD) had understood to require a 25-foot vegetative buffer between our salt marsh and upland development, was not enforceable.
  • “As a consequence, the buffer that had long protected Georgia’s salt marshes from erosion and direct pollution no longer existed. Our salt marshes had lost an extremely important protective measure.”

The state Legislature responded in 2015. Lawmakers passed Senate Bill 101 and Gov. Nathan Deal signed it into law. The bill directed the state Department of Natural Resources to write a set of rules to protect the marshlands. The bill included a number of specific instructions.

The Georgia Conservancy generally supported provisions of the law, according to a statement on its website.

DNR produced its recommendations and conducted a public hearing on Dec. 2, 2015, in Midway. Seven public comments were submitted during the rule-making process, said Jac Capp, chief of DNR’s Watershed Protection Branch.

The board that oversees the Department of Natural Resources approved the new rules in a unanimous vote during its Jan. 29 meeting. The board met in St. Simons, at the A.W. Jones Heritage Center, near the lighthouse.

Sapelo marshland

As salt grasses die, they become an early link in the aquatic food chain. Credit: Wade Sheldon via gce-iter.marsci.uga.edu

“From our perspective, it was a very successful rule making,” Capp said. “This was important to a number of folks – environmentalists and developers.”

The rules satisfy all the requirements of Senate Bill 101, according to a synopsis provided by DNR.

According DNR’s synopsis, SB 101 addressed a number of concerns involving development along coastal marshlands. The bill established:

  • A 25-foot buffer, “along coastal marshlands, as measured horizontally from the coastal marshland-upland interface, as determined in accordance with the Coastal Marshlands Protection Act;
  • “[N]o land-disturbing activity shall be conducted within the buffer and the buffer shall remain in its undisturbed state of vegetation except as otherwise provided by the statute;
  • “The statute also provides a list and description of certain buffer exceptions and exemptions. These exceptions and exemptions are carried over into the proposed rule amendments.”

“All the exemptions were written in the statute,” Capp said. “DNR took the exemptions from Senate Bill 101, so people knew they were there.

“The Legislature did make a couple of differences to the variance programs that continue to exist in the rest of the state,” Capp said. “The variance of the rule for smaller projects that we don’t have in the rest of the state, will exist for coastal projects.”

A full account of the new rules are available on a page of DNR’s website. The heart of the new rules begins on page 12 of the report.

David Pendered, Managing Editor, is an Atlanta journalist with more than 30 years experience reporting on the region’s urban affairs, from Atlanta City Hall to the state Capitol. Since 2008, he has written for print and digital publications, and advised on media and governmental affairs. Previously, he spent more than 26 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and won awards for his coverage of schools and urban development. David graduated from North Carolina State University and was a Western Knight Center Fellow. David was born in Pennsylvania, grew up in North Carolina and is married to a fifth-generation Atlantan.

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