ATLANTA – The legislators making up the informal coastal caucus agreed Tuesday to seek to tighten exemptions next year in where buffers are required around saltwater marshes but to pass a Senate bill this year without amendments.

Environmental activists have voiced criticism of Senate Bill 101 because they say it has too many exemptions that could allow developers to harm the marsh. They’re urging legislators to remove those exemptions when the House considers the bill.
But the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Ben Watson, worries that passage a second time in the Senate might be difficult if House-made changes have to be approved.

“We may end up with a 5-foot buffer or a 10-foot buffer. That is my concern,” said Watson, R-Savannah.

For the last couple of decades, the Environmental Protection Division and local governments had required a 25-foot area of undeveloped land around saltwater marshes to serve as a buffer protecting the fragile ecosystem from pesticides, fertilizers, motor oil and other pollutants. But last year the state concluded there was no legal basis for the buffer requirement and stopped imposing them.
Watson and all of the members of the caucus who spoke Tuesday said it’s important to have a law mandating 25-foot buffers, even if it’s not perfect.

“This bill will give us a buffer and not make us wait another year,” said Rep. Jesse Petrea, R-Savannah.

Gil Rogers, senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, and Megan Desrosiers, executive director of the One Hundred Miles advocacy, were at the meeting and urged caucus members to squelch citizen complaints by making the bill tougher before passing it.

Watson warned that was a big gamble.

“I will tell you, you run the risk of killing the bill,” he said.

Rogers responded, “I understand it’s a roll of the dice, but this is a really big loophole.”

Watson is confident about having enough votes to pass the Senate version in the House this legislative session. But there are members of the Senate from North Georgia who fear the coastal bill will serve as a model for legislation requiring buffers around freshwater lakes and streams in their districts, so they would be expected to vote against any tougher changes made by the House.

Sen. William Ligon, R-Brunswick, also expressed concern that a conference committee made up of legislators from other parts of the state could gut the bill if there are different versions to reconcile.

A subcommittee of the House Natural Resources Committee is expected to vote on the bill – and consider some amendments – today (WEDNESDAY), which could then send the bill to the full House for a vote before the April 2 final day. Caucus members are confident they can fend off any amendments by sticking together.

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