Pennsylvania Legislature Weakens Forest Buffer Requirements For High Quality Streams

An October 15 Bay Journal article reported that the Pennsylvania General Assembly has approved a bill that could weaken protections for high quality streams by relaxing the use of forested buffers.  From the article:

A controversial bill that environmental groups said would weaken protection for Pennsylvania’s cleanest streams won final approval by the state’s General Assembly on Wednesday.  …

The bill would change a regulation adopted by the Department of Environmental Protection in 2010 that requires projects disturbing more than an acre of land in state-designated high quality and exceptional value watersheds to provide a 150-foot forest buffer along streams.

Instead, the bill says a 100-foot buffer “may be used as a preferred choice” along streams but allows developers to substitute other stormwater control practices.

The article noted that a substituted pollution control device had to be “substantially equivalent” to a forest buffer and that removed buffers had to replaced “as close as feasible” to an area where they were removed.  The article also described the positions of the legislation’s supporters and opponents:

Environmental groups had contended in their comments that no other practices provide both the pollution control and in-stream habitat benefits as forest buffers.  …

Besides [the Chesapeake Bay Foundation], the legislation was opposed by numerous other organizations such as the Pennsylvania Chapter of The Nature Conservancy, the Pennsylvania Council of Trout Unlimited  and Citizens for Pennsylvania’s Future, among others.

The state Fish and Boat Commission also opposed the bill, as did former Department of Environmental Protection Secretary David Hess.

Hess, who served in the administrations of Republican Governors Tom Ridge and Mark Schweiker, said in a letter to lawmakers that forested buffers were “the most effective and least costly” way to reduce stream pollution and protect habitat.  …

[Passage] of the bill had been a priority for builders and developers who argued that it imposed extra burdens on landowners.

State Sen. Lisa Baker, a Republican who represents several counties in Northeastern Pennsylvania which has many high quality and exceptional streams, characterized the bill as a “landowner/property rights bill” that seeks to “develop a balance between responsible development and environmental protection.”

“I’m not interested in paving the way for huge developments nor trying to punch holes in clean water,” she said. “My interest is in giving relief to landowners who find they can not do improvements to their property costing jobs and opportunities that rural areas can ill afford to lose.”