Statement on Terra Firma Buffer Variance

By David Kyler
Executive Director 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 ecologist, a groundwater hydrologist, and a resource management expert who specializes in buffers between 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 public resources.

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.
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