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The Georgia Conservancy Under the Gold Dome – A Brief Recap of the Legislative Session

Leah Dixon

By Leah Dixon, Georgia Conservancy Advocacy Director

Photo above: Cumberland Island by Georgia Conservancy member James Powers

The lawmaking process at the state level during the final days of the legislative session can be described as one-part country auction and one-part emergency reconstructive surgery. The energy at the State Capitol is fast-paced, the Chambers and hallways are loud, and the process is often confusing – yet those hectic last hours are all methodically performed with a Southern dose of smiles and hand-shakes. This is how our laws are created and amended, and for a conservation group working under the Gold Dome it takes little gusto and a lot of persistence to enter into the fray and push forward legislation that protects our natural resources and empowers the communities which rely upon them.

What we want to achieve, though often obvious to us, may be light years away from the agendas of some of our legislators at the beginning of the legislative session. Our goal is to engage and educate our General Assembly members, encouraging them to not only see our side, but that of millions of Georgians who depend upon clean water, land, and air to live and to thrive. Environmental protection is only accomplished though strong collaboration with partner organizations, correlated state agencies, and other advocates who can bring their unique insights or perspectives to the table.

Coming into this year’s 2019 Legislative Session, the first of a biennial series, we identified a number of important measures that had the potential to be introduced, including resolutions to oppose offshore oil and gas exploration, the clarification of the jurisdictional line found in the Shore Protection Act, legislation to create an oyster and clam mariculture industry, as well as housekeeping language to the Georgia Outdoor Stewardship Act.  All of these measures were not only brought to the floor during the session, each passed both chambers – but not without debate and back-and-forth amendments. Legislation that failed to receive a vote out of both Chambers before Sine Die, or was introduced after Crossover Day, will carry forward into the 2020 Legislative Session.

The following are a few pieces of legislation on which the Georgia Conservancy worked or monitored:

  • House Resolution 48 established Georgia’s official position on offshore oil and gas exploration and was a top priority of the Georgia Conservancy and many other conservation organizations during the session. While it does not create binding regulations, the resolution signals to our U.S. Congressional delegation and to the White House that our state stands united in bi-partisan opposition to the devastating threats seismic testing and offshore drilling pose to our coastal ecosystems and nature-based economies.
  • In an attempt to amend the Right To Farm Act, House Bill 545, which did not pass, sought to limit the rights of people who reside near agricultural operations. If passed, the bill would have forbidden nuisance lawsuits to be brought forth against newly established farms or agricultural activities one year after the creation of such enterprise. This legislation will be eligible for consideration in next year’s session.
  • House Bill 501, which passed both Chambers well before Sine Die, will allow for the development of a shellfish (oyster and clam) mariculture industry on the Georgia coast. The goals of this maricultural legislation are to provide a regulatory framework which protects consumer health, state siting guidance for mariculture installations, and protection of our salt marsh, including the important role shellfish play in our estuarine ecology. The Georgia Conservancy supports the development of a mariculture industry in Georgia and looks forward to working with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and our state’s oyster farmers in the interim to improve upon this legislation through the upcoming rulemaking process.
  • House Resolution 591, which passed the House late in the session, creates a committee to study residential building design standards under the premise that local communities should not have a say in creating their own ordinances or regulations. The Georgia Conservancy supports local communities’ authority to explore their own community development solutions and will closely monitor the work of this new House Study Committee during the interim. Learn more about the Georgia Conservancy work in statewide housing: www.georgiaconservancy.org/housing
  • As an amendment to the state’s Shore Protection Act, House Bill 445, clarifies the jurisdictional lines that delineate protected areas of the shoreline from areas which may see development. The Shore Protection Act (SPA) became law in 1979 to ensure that the sand sharing system (dunes, beaches, shoals and sandbars) is protected from adverse impacts from human activity. We believe that rigorous application and coordination of the Shoreline Protection Act is critical to preserving the coast’s ecological integrity as tourism and recreation expands. While the Georgia Conservancy supported legislation clarifying and redefining the jurisdictional boundary of the SPA during this session, we will work to encourage an expansion of the protected areas on non-state owned land and will monitor the delineation process as the new jurisdictional lines are enacted.
  • As important housekeeping language to the Georgia Outdoor Stewardship Act, House Bill 382 will allow for the DNR to better implement and administer the Georgia Outdoor Stewardship Trust Fund, which was overwhelmingly approved by Georgia voters in November of 2018. HB 382 passed the House and Senate and will move to the Governor’s desk. Learn more about the Georgia Outdoor Stewardship Act and Amendment: www.georgiaoutdoorstewardship.org
  • House Bill 589 sought to allow short-term surface mining on conservation properties under a Forest Land Protection Act covenant. The Georgia Conservancy is strongly opposed for the allowance of such a breach of covenant. This legislation did not pass during this session, but will be eligible for consideration during the 2020 Legislative Session.

To read the Georgia Conservancy’s full recap of the 2019 Legislative Session, please visit: www.georgiaconservancy.org/advocacy/update

Founded in 1967, the Georgia Conservancy’s mission is to protect and conserve Georgia’s natural resources through advocacy, engagement and collaboration.  Learn more at www.georgiaconservancy.org

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