GA Supreme Court denies protective buffer for freshwater wetlands, statewide waters

Without requiring the 25-foot buffer along the banks of all state waters, like the freshwater wetland pictured above, pollution and development impacts put Georgia’s waters at risk. (© Chris DeScherer)

An adverse decision from the Georgia Supreme Court has put an end to a two year battle SELC has been fighting in order to restore the protective 25-foot buffer for freshwater wetlands, and for waters statewide that are not currently protected.

Last summer, SELC and our partners succeeded in overriding the Georgia Environmental Protection Division’s policy that only some state waters are protected by buffers in the Georgia Court of Appeals, securing protections for freshwater wetlands and waters statewide. SELC’s win also invalidated EPD Director Judson Turner’s decision to strip the buffer from the Georgia Coast on Earth Day 2014.

After instructing local issuing authorities to disregard the appellate court’s decision, EPD appealed and won in state Supreme Court. The case came down to the statutory interpretation of a poorly worded buffer provision: if a water or wetland does not have “wrested vegetation” (the point on a bank where vegetation stops growing due to water flow), no buffer should be enforced.

SELC argued that wetlands often do not have a defined line of wrested vegetation, but should be protected from polluted runoff and development impacts under the buffer provision given their abilities to filter out pollution, hold excess water during flooding, and provide critical habitat.  

Despite the state Supreme Court loss, SELC’s work in the recent legislative session helped to pass a bill that restored the 25-foot buffer for Georgia’s coastal marshes.   

While there are no plans to appeal the decision at this time, SELC will continue working toward strengthening protections for freshwater wetlands and other Georgia waters.

Read the press release here.

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