By LISA SCAGLIOTTI
Shelburne’s LaPlatte River Marsh has received the highest level of state wetlands protection, ensuring that the critical 270-acre wetland remains preserved from development.
The environmental advocacy group, Vermont Natural Resources Council, filed a petition in March to have the LaPlatte River Marsh designated a Class I wetland. Jon Groveman, the organization’s policy and water program director, said there are only six other wetlands with this designation in Vermont.
The new classification went into effect Wednesday.
A large portion of the newly minted “best in show” wetlands fall within a preserve owned by The Nature Conservancy. Rose Paul, director of critical lands and conservation science for that organization, noted that the area contains a “mosaic” of natural communities, such as floodplain forests, in wetlands within the river mouth and on the frequently flooded land along the water’s edge.
The lower LaPlatte also is home to two fish — the stonecat and the channel darter — that are at the edge of their eastern range in Vermont, holdovers from a one-time connection between Lake Champlain and the Mississippi River after the glaciers melted, Paul said. The sedge skipper, a yellow-flecked brown butterfly, and more than 200 species of birds have also been found in the wetlands.
The LaPlatte wetlands filter nutrients out of the river, which flows through agricultural land, before its waters enter Lake Champlain, noted Paul.
Laura LaPierre, wetlands program manager for the state Agency of Natural Resources, said that to achieve the Class I distinction, a wetland must be deemed “exceptional or irreplaceable” for one of 10 ecological values, including flood protection, wildlife habitat and erosion control. The state agency determined that the LaPlatte River Marsh was exceptional for 10 and irreplaceable for nine, she said.
Under the Class I designation, no new development would be allowed in the wetland, LaPierre explained. The classification also outlines a 100-foot buffer zone around the wetland.
LaPierre said that anyone seeking to alter land within that buffer has to apply for a permit and must prove that “the activity would not harm this irreplaceable resource.” The wetlands themselves could only be developed for public health or safety concerns, she said.
Dean Pierce, director of planning and zoning for the town of Shelburne, said that the town had some initial trepidations about the impact the classification would have on town buildings, such as a wastewater treatment plant, that now fall within the buffer area. ANR assured the town that maintenance to existing structures was allowed, he said.
“The town came to realize that just because facilities might be within the buffer, it didn’t mean we had to take them out,” Pierce said.
Likewise, LaPierre said state officials met with landowners along the wetland to address concerns some may have had about future plans for their land given the increased protections. She said they managed to discuss options before any projects have begun. “This is a good time to be doing this,” she said. “This is a way for us to plan to keep irreplaceable resources intact.”
That buffer zone also extends to property owned by Vermont Railway Inc. where it operates a storage and distribution facility for up to 80,000 tons of road salt. That development has been controversial given its proximity to the LaPlatte. It sparked opposition from environmentalists and the town government which has fought the development in federal court for the past two years.
The railroad built the facility without going through local development review. So far, the courts have maintained that the railroad was exempt from such scrutiny. The town appealed the latest court ruling the federal appeals court in New York City. The Vermont Natural Resources Council, which requested the wetlands designation change, also is funding the town’s legal appeal in the salt shed matter.
No hearing has been set yet for oral arguments in that case, according to Peter Young, a lawyer for the railroad.
The railroad’s property is about 34 acres and the salt facility takes up about 19 acres of that. Young said the new wetlands designation would not have any impact on the railroad’s current operations; he said he could not comment on potential future development the railroad might pursue on the site.
As for other uses in the area, LaPierre said the new wetlands designation should have no impact on how people use and enjoy the LaPlatte river and its wetlands.
“Passive recreation is encouraged,” she said, pointing out that there are trails and boardwalks in the area and many enjoy paddling the river in kayaks and canoes.
VtDigger contributed to this report.