Last week the Georgia Legislature wrapped up a session that proved to be pretty good for supporters of sustainable land use and environmental policies. The legislature passed bills that protect critical habitat and water resources, advance alternative forms of transportation in urban areas, and recognize the importance of pollution control and mitigation. While I have already posted about the legislature’s protection of Jekyll Island and it’s recognition of the importance of environmental buffer zones, several other bills advanced responsible land use and environmental policies.
One of the most significant bills to come out of the legislature this year was Senate Bill (SB) 213, which gave the Environmental Protection Division (EPD) more deference to control water resources in times of drought. When severe droughts are predicted for upcoming summer seasons, the EPD may create augmentation programs to allow more groundwater to flow in the Flint River. As a means of realizing the augmentation program, the director of EPD may instruct certain water withdrawal permitees to not act on their permits. This means the director can tell certain landowners, who already have permits that allow them to withdraw water, to reduce the amount they take out or to not take any water out at all. Unsurprisingly, this raised the eyebrows of many people, including those in the Georgia House.
In response to SB 213, the House created House Bill (HB)
1085. This bill eliminated language that allowed the director of EPD to instruct permitees to not withdraw water and also limited the scope of of all actions included in the bill to just the Flint River and Spring Creek. This is in contrast to SB 213, which allowed all actions in the bill to apply to all tributaries in the Flint River basin, not just the Flint River and Spring Creek. Appropriately, HB 1085 was titled “Farmers’ Private Property Protection Act;” this is clearly an ode to the viewpoint that the director’s ability to designate which landowners must forgo or limit their water withdrawal limits private property rights.
While HB 1085 failed to make it out of committee, SB 213 passed the Senate and the House by votes of 52 to 1 and 164 to 3, respectively. Clearly the legislature recognizes that droughts take a huge toll on the state and EPD must have the ability to act quickly to save water resources and mitigate damages. While it may be unfair to tell one property owner they need to limit their water withdrawals, droughts develop quickly and there needs to be a way to respond quickly. As everyone in Georgia knows, the state is currently involved in water disputes with Florida and Alabama over the allocation of water in the Appalachicola, Chattahoochee, and Flint River water basins. In future legal battles, it is in Georgia’s best interest to show that it is actually trying to conserve water and mitigate waste. Georgia is significantly ahead of both Florida and Alabama in planning and managing water resources and SB 213 just adds to this competency.
One of the more controversial issues within the legislature involved a bill that got almost no media attention. House Bill 960 changes significant pieces of existing legislation regarding how we redevelop urban areas throughout the state. In redeveloping these areas, the current law says cities can acquire property to make areas less dense and to install certain surface transportation projects. HB 960 changes this to allow cities to acquire property to make areas less dense and more dense. It also allows cities to acquire property to build sidewalks, transit facilities, and bicycle infrastructure.
Apart from the plan to preserve land on Jekyll Island, this is the most progressive land use bill that actually got passed this session. It’s a simple change that will have a huge impact. The bill recognizes the importance and popularity of alternative forms of transportation and their ability to rehabilitate urban areas. It departs from the outdated and incorrect belief that less density is always better than greater density. In many instances allowing more people to live in downtown areas will increase the amount of foot traffic and consequently make them much more attractive area for businesses. While the House adopted the bill by a vote of 158 to 4, the Senate passed it by a narrow margin of 30 to 19.
The Georgia legislature also passed bills to give tax credits and funding for downtown investment projects and to require the EPD to respond to emergency pollution situations. House Bill 133 creates a Downtown Renaissance Fund to give appropriated money (money from the Georgia legislature; capped at $5 million a year), grant money, and tax credits to certain projects that help downtown areas. While this provides funds for downtown areas, it is limited in nature and may not have a huge impact, at least for the time being.
House Bill 549 is of more significance because it addresses the major environmental problem of unintended pollution in waterways. This bill mandates that any person who is responsible for a spill of a susbstance that would endanger the health the health or property of a downstream user to immediately contact the EPD. Additionally, the bill requires the EPD to a have an emergency response plan and to act on that plan when needed. This is in direct response to the largest fish kill in Georgia history, which occurred in May of 2011 in the Ogeechee River. While the EPA was able to take action in penalizing the party responsible (though not enough action), no one was available to mitigate the disaster while it was happening; this bill would mandate that EPD assumes that role.
Other important achievements include greater penalties for illegal timber cutting and the protection of poisonous snakes. House Bill 790 affords property owners greater recovery rights when someone illegal cuts trees (and the carries them away, which I guess converts the trees to “timber”) on their property. Perhaps shockingly the legislature passed SB-322, which prevents people from using certain hazardous methods to kill rattlesnakes and other poisonous snakes. Apparently this is commonplace in south Georgia and it is inadvertently killing other species.
Many other bills were passed that do not support smart environmental and land use planning, but generally they were minor tweaks to current laws. Perhaps in a future post they will be highlighted. It is important to recognize the tremendous progress made by this legislature in passing powerful bills that will have major positive impacts on our environment. Though it may surprise some, Georgia is increasingly becoming the southeast’s leader in land use and environmental planning, particularly in regards to water resources. We still have a long way to go, but at least some progress was made in protecting the natural resources and environments that encapsulate the beauty and diversity of Georgia that we all love.
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