MADISON, Wis. — Wisconsin Republicans moved closer Thursday to relaxing wetland regulations, passing a contentious bill that would allow builders to fill certain marshes and bogs without a permit through the state Assembly.
The chamber passed the bill 58-39, sending it on to the Senate, which is expected to vote on the proposal Tuesday. Passage is all but certain. From there the bill would go to Gov. Scott Walker’s desk.
Debate lasted for nearly three hours in the Assembly as Democrats took turns arguing the bill would lead to the destruction of untold wetland acres. That in turn would result in the loss of wildlife habitat and natural flood barriers, they insisted. Wetlands act as natural sponges, soaking up precipitation and filtering out pollution before it can reach rivers and streams.
Democratic Rep. Gary Hebl warned the bill would “decimate the environment” and lead to more flooding emergencies. He accused Republicans of trying to win favor with corporations in hopes of winning votes.
“This is not a good bill,” Hebl said. “Helping businesses and protecting the environment are not mutually exclusive. They can live in harmony. We don’t have to forsake our natural environment for the developers.”
Republicans countered the current permit process can drag on for months, costing developers thousands of dollars that get passed on to property users. The bill’s author, Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke, said the bill would affect only 2 percent of the state’s wetlands that would be filled anyway through the current permitting process.
“This bill just sets up a streamlined process,” Steineke said. “We’re saving people money.”
Republicans and their allies in the construction and real estate industries have long complained that the state Department of Natural Resources’ wetland development permit process is too onerous and stymies business expansion.
The bill would allow builders to fill up to an acre per parcel of urban wetlands, defined as wetlands within a half-mile of a municipality or an area with a sewer system, without a permit as long as the activity doesn’t disturb rare or high-quality wetlands.
Builders who fill more than 10,000 square feet of an urban wetland would have to mitigate that loss by building a new wetland elsewhere, buying credits from a mitigation bank or paying into a DNR wetland restoration fund.
Builders also would be allowed to fill up 3 acres per parcel of rural wetlands without a permit if the project is related to an agricultural structure and doesn’t disturb rare or high-quality wetlands. Developers would have to mitigate losses of more than 1.5 acres.
Builders also could fill artificial wetlands without a permit. Builders can fill artificial wetlands without a permit right now unless the DNR determines the wetland is significant. The bill would remove that caveat.
An earlier version of the bill would have allowed developers to fill any state wetland without a permit. Republicans walked the bill back into its current form after conservation groups came out against it.
Ducks Unlimited and Wisconsin Trout Unlimited, two of the original bill’s most well-known opponents, have shifted to a neutral stance after reviewing the changes. A long list of environmental groups, including the Sierra Club and the Wisconsin Wetlands Association, still oppose the scaled-down version.
Associations representing state builders, cattlemen and real estate agents all have registered in favor. So have the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation and Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, the state’s largest business group and one of the most powerful lobbying forces in Madison.
Republican Rep. Adam Jarchow complained that the current bill is far too weak.
“This is a huge missed opportunity,” he said. “In Wisconsin we regulate everything to death. The (original bill) was the biggest rural economic development project you could possibly pass. Is the (current bill) some big corporate giveaway? Of course it’s not. It’s a pared-back pin-prick.”
Jarchow still voted for the bill.
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