Statement on Terra Firma Buffer Variance
By David Kyler
Center for a Sustainable Coast
April 30, 2004
When the DNR Marshlands Protection
Committee approved a permit that would provide access for the Terra Firma project, it was
with a specific understanding that developers would conform to standards of the "Island Plan,"
administered by the Metropolitan Planning Commission. That plan requires a 50-foot buffer
(including 35 feet of undisturbed natural vegetation along all marshfront areas), double the
25-foot minimum required under the state's Soil Erosion and Sedimentation Act because of the
importance of protecting wetlands from non-point source pollution. In spite of that clearly
understood provision, the developers recently convinced the MPC to allow them to override
the buffer requirement by reducing it to the minimum, 25 feet.
To achieve acceptable trade-offs in allowing the disturbance of environmentally fragile areas
like hammocks, responsible steps must be taken to ensure that public resources are reliably
protected. Owners of hammocks are by no means guaranteed the right to build bridges across
public marshlands to gain access to their property, and the burden of proof for justifying
a permit granting that privilege falls on the permit applicant. When such bridge access is
granted by the state, developers must be held accountable to prescribed conditions if the
public interest is to be properly protected. We believe that the buffer variance is
inconsistent with this key objective.
The Center for a Sustainable Coast has been advised independently by three environmental
professionals about the requested buffer reduction in the Terra Firma project: a marsh
a groundwater hydrologist, and a resource management expert who specializes in buffers
land and state waters, including wetlands. Each of these highly qualified individuals
independently concluded that proposed drainage controls for Terra Firma do not justify
sacrificing the extra 25 feet of natural buffer because of the buffer's importance in
protecting the surrounding marsh ecosystem. Further, they suspect that these drainage
controls introduce still other risks to natural resources.
By deviating from basic provisions of the Islands Plan, the developers are testing the resolve
of decision-makers who are entrusted to safeguard the public interest. If such an unjustified
exemption for this project were approved, the County would be setting a dangerous precedent
undermining the very purpose of Island Plan standards that were adopted to protect valuable
While we appreciate other measures being taken by the developers of Terra Firma to protect
the environment, it is clear that there is no acceptable justification for approving a reduction
in the buffer. We respectfully urge the County Commissioners to honor the principles at
stake by upholding the Islands Plan and denying the buffer variance for Terra Firma.