GLOBAL CITIZEN: An Environmentalist Encounters an Environmental Law

Now that I've suffered under one firsthand, I can understand why people hate environmental laws.

On a map of our farm filed away at the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources is a fateful dot. It stands for an endangered Siberian Chive, observed by someone decades ago. This dot popped up when we applied under Vermont's Act 250, one of the best land use laws of the nation, to build 22 small "green" homes clustered on four of our 270 acres.

The dot lies near a brook that trickles through a hayfield. It is not within sight of the proposed construction. But Act 250 brings every inch of our land under scrutiny. So, to preserve the chive, the state says we must maintain a 50 foot no-mow buffer on either side of the brook.

That buffer would render unusable several acres of a small field that has been dutifully hayed for the past 40 years right up to the brushy bank of the brook. "If haying is going to do in that chive," I pointed out, "the chive is done in. If you can show me even one plant, I'll protect it with my life. But why should we lose the use of good bottomland for a chive that isn't there?"

We compromised on 25 feet, still too much, in my opinion, but one of the less infuriating outcomes of the year we have spent with Act 250.

I want to reiterate; it is a great law. It requires every developer of more than ten living units to prove to regulatory agencies and the public that the proposed land use change will not endanger anyone's water supply. It must not cause undue erosion. It must dispose of wastewater safely. It must not cause air pollution or use too much energy or ruin scenic views or threaten wetlands or extinguish species or burden the schools or bankrupt the town. These are reasonable requirements. I think they should be imposed on every new construction in every state in the Union.

But something has gone wrong when the workings of a law start undermining its very purpose.

As, for example, the decision about composting toilets. We think it is environmentally wrong to use drinking water to wash away human waste, and then to dump that waste, processed or not, into streams or groundwater, where its nutrients are pollutants, rather than back to the soil, where the nutrients are a resource. Hence we asked to install composting toilets, which, I'm happy to report, the state permitted.

But it threw in this kicker. When, after a year or two, our toilets have accumulated compost, we are not allowed to take it out, mix it with yard trimmings, compost it further, and spread it around our roses. Rather, we are required to call a licensed septic tank hauler to take the compost to a municipal sewage treatment system.

That defeats the whole logic of composting toilets.

There are several more such crazy dictates scattered through our pages-thick permit, which took more than a year to obtain and added roughly $5,000 to the cost of each home. My purpose here is not to complain about the specifics, the delays, or even the expense, though much of that expense was unnecessary to any conceivable environmental protection. My purpose is to reflect upon good laws that go bad.

Though I have periodically been incensed at it, I do not conclude, as my friends to the right do, that we should sweep Act 250 away. I have no doubt we'd be worse off without it. I'm also not ready to condemn the dozens of state regulators we've dealt with. Most of them did their best to be helpful and even cheerful. But they labor under conditions that turn their work sour.

Partly because of the incessant anti-bureaucrat, anti-tax rantings of my friends to the right, they are underpaid, overworked, and often undertrained. State salaries may suffice for the young, the unambitious or the unusually virtuous, but most professionals can earn much more in the private sector, from which we had to hire them, for example, to research the expected water-flow reductions of composting toilets, something public-sector professionals ought to know. They have no time to know. They're overloaded.

Furthermore, their jobs have evolved into stopping abuse, rather than helping people do the right thing. They know a grossly dysfunctional septic tank design when they see one. They can tell us what not to do. But there's no opportunity, no time, no leeway for them to help those of us who are honestly eager to do the right thing.

Most of the folks administering environmental laws took their jobs because they care about the environment. They should be able to interact with us as partners, instead of trying to catch us doing things wrong, or trying to protect us from ourselves. They should be well paid and well trained -- after all, they are the daily guardians of our air and water and soil. Investing more public funds in them could cost far less and produce a better environment than setting up a system in which private-sector hydrogeologists and civil engineers and lawyers must do constant battle with them.

If we come to hate the laws, eventually there won't be any. Environmentalists, of all people, need to care not only what laws are on the books, but how they actually work.

Donella Meadows is an adjunct professor at Dartmouth College and director of the Sustainability Institute in Hartland, Vermont.

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