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Lakes

A bill before the Wisconsin Assembly would make far-reaching changes to laws protecting lakes.

The state Assembly’s Republican majority on Tuesday passed bills including a rollback of lake and wetland protections, new constraints on local power to control pollution and a fundamental change in the way judges handle environmental lawsuits.

Authors of Assembly Bills 600 and 582 said they were long-overdue measures that would restore and expand rights of private property owners. Lawmakers approved Assembly Bill 600 57-39 and Assembly Bill 582 56-39.

AB 600 was aimed at curtailing government authority to regulate lakefront landowners and developers who want to build on wetlands.

The bill loosens limits on dredging shoreline areas, requires the state to classify less lake acreage as sensitive, and mandates shoreline lakebed be deeded to property owners in places where fill material was dumped to push back the water’s edge before 1975, even if it was done illegally.

An amendment to the bill that was offered Friday makes several changes, including allowing public access to the filled-in lakebed in some cases, but conservationists said such changes were cosmetic.

Under the state constitution, state government is supposed to hold lakes in trust for the benefit of the public.

Amber Meyer Smith, a lobbyist for Clean Wisconsin, said AB 600 takes a step in the wrong direction by allowing public access to filled lakeshore only under certain circumstances.

Conservationists said a provision allowing each lakefront owner to dredge 25 cubic yards — enough to fill several dump trucks — of sediment each year risked destruction of fish habitat and degraded water quality because it can spread invasive species and toxins buried in sediment.

But Republicans said current laws and enforcement actions by the state Department of Natural Resources have been too costly and have unfairly constrained the freedom of property owners to use boats, extend piers and repair boathouses.

The bill’s author, Balsam Lake Republican Rep. Adam Jarchow, met with conservation groups that oppose the legislation and business lobbyists who support it after a Jan. 5 public hearing drew strong condemnation from environmentalists.

But changes unveiled last week only softened language without changing much substance, said Carl Sinderbrand, an attorney who has represented clients interested in environmental policy for decades.

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One Republican, Rep. Joel Kitchens of Sturgeon Bay, has said he wanted to see changes in the provisions allowing each lakefront owner to dredge several dump trucks of sediment each year.

The bill includes a provision to make it easier for business developers to fill wetlands.

Under current law, a developer may be required to buy other land to avoid eliminating wetland, but in certain circumstances the bill would require a developer to move a project only to land already owned.

The Senate version of the bill, SB 459, still faces a public hearing and a vote in committee before the full Senate would consider it.

AB 582 would stop local governments from declaring moratoriums on certain types of development. Several counties have declared moratoriums to give themselves time to write ordinances to control environmental effects of frac sand mines.

Another provision would stop municipalities from setting certain conditions on the repair of buildings that have been constructed legally in shore land setback areas. Construction in those areas can degrade lake water quality by adding to soil and chemical runoff.

The bill also would require judges to stop the long-standing practice of giving deference to the expertise of state regulators when an agency such as the DNR is challenged in court.

The bills’ authors are Jarchow and Sen. Frank Lasee, R-De Pere. The Senate version of the bill is SB 464, which was recommended by a committee but not scheduled for a vote Tuesday. Business associations for real estate interests, builders and the state business lobby, Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, are pushing for the legislation.

Most major environmental groups are opposed.

The bills were passed during a 11-hour floor session on Tuesday — part of an ambitious schedule Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, has set in order for the Assembly to wrap up its work next week.

State Journal reporter Molly Beck contributed to this report.

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Steven Verburg is a reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal covering state politics with a focus on science and the environment as well as military and veterans issues.