A legislative update heard by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources’ Coastal Advisory Council was received with quiet outrage during the CAC’s spring meeting Wednesday morning at the Coastal Electric Membership Cooperative headquarters on Highway 17 in Midway.
The nearly 25 members who attended the meeting reacted strongly to new state legislation that allows the Environmental Protection Division to end the requirement for developers to maintain a minimum 25-foot buffer from salt marshes. Prior to the meeting, David Kyler, executive director for the Center for a Sustainable Coast on St. Simons Island, said he and other CAC members had planned to debate sending a letter from the CAC to Gov. Nathan Deal to protest the new legislation.
Kyler said he fully expected the majority of CAC members would not support such a letter, and there would be heated debate. Instead, it appeared nearly all members were against the EPD directive. There was concern only about how the letter should be worded and whether the letter should be more than a protest.
CAC Chairman Steve Vives said there are two perspectives about the new legislation. One perspective is that buffers protect saltwater marshes with a strip of vegetated land that runs along the edge of the marsh, filtering out pollutants near the marsh. Buffers also reduce flooding when high winds drive the tide inland.
EPD Director Judson Turner’s perspective is that the Georgia Erosion and Sedimentation Act, which former EPD Director Carol Couch used to establish the 25-foot buffer, supersedes the jurisdictional boundaries set by the Coastal Marshlands Protection Act.
“Most people thought the 25-foot buffer was a huge compromise,” said Steve Willis, CSC and Sierra Club member. “It was originally 150 feet, then it went down to 75 feet, then 50 feet. You can see there is a pattern of reduction here. Twenty-five feet is not enough, but we don’t want to lose it. It should be a 50-foot-minimum buffer.”
Paul Wolff of Tybee Island said there is a feeling by some that conservationists are trying to take away 25 feet of their land. He said, on the contrary, conservationists are trying to save the marshes.
Mike Edgy of Brantley County warned the council about “pushing too hard” and said they were likely to lose what they’ve already achieved to protect the marshes. If they push for more than 25-foot buffers, he said “the people with all the money” will fight it.
A motion then was made for members to discuss via email the appropriate language for a letter to the Board of Natural Resources that would urge for reversal of the EPD directive. That letter should be completed in two weeks. Kyler said he hopes the letter will call for reversing the April 22 EPD directive and support development and adoption of legislation based on scientific research on the benefits of marsh buffers.
In other business, the CAC heard from Kelly Spratt from the Georgia Sea Grant about the status of flood insurance in Coastal Georgia. She noted that the National Flood Insurance Program was $18 billion in debt after Hurricane Katrina. Reforms made in 2011 were intended to have flood insurance reflect “true flood risks.” Then along came Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Spratt said the NFIP now is $30 billion in debt.
She said the fix for the NFIP included major premium increases for home and business owners, with some increases over 25 percent. Home and business owners could no longer afford their flood insurance, but they couldn’t sell their homes or businesses due to a stagnant housing market and weak economy.
Spratt said the Affordable Flood Insurance Act of 2014 caps premiums at 18 percent. Moreover, it can be transferred upon sale of the house or business.
“There is still a huge paper tiger we’re trying to deal with, and that’s the implementation,” Spratt said. “It’s a matter of getting in there to help local governments with this new paperwork.”