It’s a place where rare birds and fish congregate, people paddle in search of new sights, pollutants stop short of Lake Champlain, and lake floodwaters halt their march toward land.
Shelburne’s LaPlatte River Marsh Wetlands are a unique place, and a rare one in Chittenden County and in Vermont. On Aug. 30, the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources Department of Environmental Conservation will hold a public hearing on a request to provide greater protection to this area at the river’s entry into Lake Champlain.
The Vermont Natural Resources Council, working with Huntington environmental firm Arrowwood Environmental, submitted a petition earlier this year to the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources to change the LaPlatte River Marsh wetlands from a Class II to a designated Class I wetland. Should this be approved, the development buffer surrounding the wetland would expand from 50 to 100 feet.
“The designation of Class 1 status is like winning Best in Show at the state fair,” said Rose Paul, The Nature Conservancy’s Director of Science and Freshwater Programs. “It is a recognition of the outstanding qualities of a wetland.” Much of the wetlands are TNC-owned.
“Even back in 1976, TNC knew that these lands were very special,” Paul said. “The floodplain forest along the lower LaPlatte River is one of the best and most intact examples in the entire Lake Champlain valley. The marshes of the lower LaPlatte River are a very important habitat for rare species and support a whole lot of wildlife.”
The Aug. 30 hearing is an opportunity for the public to comment on the Class I petition with DEC staff, said Laura Lapierre, DEC Conservation Wetlands program manager. The application materials will be available for review at the meeting, and they can also be viewed at: https://anrweb.vt.gov/DEC/IWIS/ReportViewer2.aspx?Report=WLPublicNotices&ViewParms=False.
VNRC Policy and Water Program Director Jon Groveman said that representatives from his organization – the petitioner – and from Arrowwood Environmental, which performed the necessary environmental studies and prepared the petition, will be present to answer questions.
ANR officials will consider comments from the hearing in deciding whether to reject the petition or begin rulemaking to change the wetlands’ designation to class I, Lapierre said. Members of the public can also email comments to ANR.WSMDWetlands@vermont.gov or mail them to DEC.
The area is “really a gem of a wetland statewide; it’s especially a gem in Chittenden County,” Groveman said, due to the degree of development in the region and its proximity to Lake Champlain. “It’s always been identified as one of our special ecological places in Vermont.”
Fish habitat in the wetlands includes important spawning locations, as well as a home for the rare stonecat fish, Paul noted. Rare birds “from far and wide” make appearances here, attracting attention from birders. And the area helps keep pollutants out of Shelburne Bay in two ways: The wetlands act to filter out pollutants before they reach Lake Champlain, and the shade provided by wetland trees keeps river water cool, cutting down on blue-green algae blooms, Paul explained.
Class I status is granted based on 10 parameters, including providing habitat for fish, wildlife, and rare, threatened, and endangered species, as well as acting to protect water quality and store floodwaters, Lapierre noted. “The petitioner believes the LaPlatte wetlands are exceptional or irreplaceable for all 10 functions,” she said.
Shelburne’s Lintilhac Foundation is supporting the reclassification effort, part of a larger mission to enhance water quality, said the foundation’s Crea Lintilhac. “With increasing development pressures on the LaPlatte and its proximity to Lake Champlain, the foundation considers it a priority for protection.”
One advantage of the proposed Class I designation would be attracting resources to aid in managing the wetlands, Paul said. There are trails in the area that hikers and paddlers use but TNC would like to add a “fully ADA-compliant trail that provides greater access to more people of all abilities,” she said.
Should ANR officials move ahead to reclassify the wetland, another comment period and hearing would happen during the rulemaking phase, Lapierre said. The Commissioner of Environmental Conservation makes the final decision on the petition. The change, if approved, would likely not be completed until spring.
The public hearing is scheduled for 5:30 p.m., Aug. 30, at the Shelburne Town Offices.