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Wetlands Stakeholders Unpack State's Proposed Rule Changes

Annie Ropeik

The state Department of Environmental Services is on the road this week and next, taking feedback on a complex draft of new rules for development around wetlands.

This is the first total rewrite of the state wetlands code since the 1990s, and it's been in the works since 2014.

DES says its goal is to speed up the permitting process for lower-impact projects and make everything clearer. The proposed rules for tidal areas also account for climate change and sea level rise.

The agency met with Lakes Region residents in Laconia on Thursday night, taking detailed questions from dock builders, conservationists and others about how the changes would affect them.

Many in attendance wanted a clearer way to compare the impacts of the new rules and the old. 

And they were interested in how the new rules broaden what's considered a "low-impact" project, allowing faster permitting without input from a local conservation commission. 

New projects in that category include basic repairs and restorations affecting streams and dunes, as well as small-scale beach or deck construction. 

The changes also include new definitions of basic terms like "avoidance" and "minimization," the "need" to impact wetlands, and features like public docks and coastal land. Officials say those terms were adopted from federal law in the old rules, but never clearly defined or standardized. 

Some in Laconia had questions about proposed new standards for dock size per feet of water frontage. DES wants to lower the frontage requirement for building a dock, and create more flexibility for dock designs and shapes. 

The legislature is also considering a bill to create a study committee on dock issues, which DES officials says could end up changing their new rules down the line. 

Laconia Conservation Commission chair Dean Anson said at Thursday's meeting he's worried about any new rules that could expand development or crowding on the shores of places like Lake Winnipesaukee, where he likes to kayak.

"I don't go out on the lake to look at docks. I go out on the lake to see nature," Anson says. "And I'm concerned that when you do the design for docking structures, you take that into consideration. ... If this thing extends 50 feet out into the water, I don't want to see that. That's not why I live here."  

DES officials took notes on all the questions and comments at the meeting, and encouraged attendees to submit written feedback, too.

Rene Pelletier, the assistant director of the DES Water Division, says they want as much input on the new rules as they can get.

“Our ultimate goal in the final product is a balance, so it works for the people of the state, and it also works for the environment,” he says. “That’s the balance we’re trying to find.”

Officials also held meetings in Concord and Portsmouth this week. They’ll be in Keene and Lancaster next week.

But Pelletier says this probably won’t be the last draft they ask for feedback on before the rules are finalized. He hopes to do that by the end of the year.

(Read more about the draft rules, and submit comments, at the DES website.)

Annie has covered the environment, energy, climate change and the Seacoast region for NHPR since 2017. She leads the newsroom's climate reporting project, By Degrees.
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