The Georgia Supreme Court ruled on Monday that a law requiring a 25 foot protection buffer on construction does not necessarily protect marshes and wetlands. The ruling topped off a controversial decision made in 2014 by the director of the Environmental Protection Division, Judson Turner who said the law then was confusing. Many opposed to indiscriminate development along local coastlands said it may open the door for more projects with less scrutiny.
In making its ruling, the Supreme Court even described the summary of its decision as one that involved a” high-profile environmental case”, saying the “state Supreme Court has ruled that the 25-foot buffer required by state law between development projects and the banks of waterways generally does not apply to marshes and wetlands.”
So does it mean building on local coastland anytime soon? State Senator Ben Watson and Tybee City Councilman Paul Wolff believe this is unlikely.
That’s because a few months ago, the 2015 state legislature passed a new measure “clarifying” the existing buffer law. Wolff believes it makes clear a 25 foot construction free zone is needed on marshland especially. “The coastal buffers manages storm water and helps filter pollutants out of the water,” Wolff told me. He says that’s why not messing with marshland and not building too close to the edge of the marsh is critical for the local environment.
Tybee actually has its own buffer ordinance but Wolff is glad to know that a new state law backs up the city. “Now at least we have a law that’s very clear on how the buffer is going to be enforced,” he told me.
State Senator Ben Watson of Savannah who sponsored the new buffer law says without action this year from the legislature that “the Supreme Court decision would have indeed affected local coastland and marshland.” Watson told me people should be grateful the legislature made an effort to clarify the buffer issue.
Wolff agrees although he says even the new law has a number of loopholes that he believes could allow for development. Still, he says the new law is important.
Wolff says the Georgia Supreme Court ruling is just another example of the development pressures, especially on coastal communities. The suit was brought in relation to a project that had been stalled. And Wolff says the issue of building locally and statewide may just be beginning. “ON the Georgia coast I think the development projections are that we’re gong to grow by 50 percent by 2030,” he said.
Wolff says that raises a variety of issues, not only on building itself, but on infrastructure needs like roads and sewers, not to mention community services like garbage pickup and police protection. “So we need to be diligent on how we manage growth going forward to we don’t add pressure to the ecosystems.”
According to EPD’s Judson Turner, whose decision last year prompted the Supreme Court ruling, the action “affects all state waters except coastal marshland.” Turner says the new law on the 25 foot buffer won’t take effect until January however. Meanwhile, many are piecing together what impact the Supreme Court decision has on development on other waterways in the state.