Coping With The 'Crazy Quilt'? Towns And State Revamp Shoreland Protection

Mar 8, 2013

Thanks to a strong conservation ethic, Squam Lake is one of the state's most un-developed large lakes. But development is starting to threaten water quality of many New Hampshire water bodies.
Credit Sam Evans-Brown / NHPR

Perhaps the biggest driver of New Hampshire’s tourist economy is clean water. Sparkling lakes sell boats, second homes, and jet-ski rentals. But keeping that water clean means smart development. As a new bill changing how the state protects shoreland works its way through the legislature, different New Hampshire towns disagree on what exactly smart development looks like.

In the town of Wolfeboro Paul Montrone has one vision of smart development. He shows off some elements of the stormwater management system he’s building into his property, saying “there’s a drain over here. We’re standing in a drive-way, so there’s a lot of water that’s coming off the roof of this house and it’s hitting the driveway.” He gesticulates as he talks.

Montrone is part of the New Hampshire Shoreland Coalition, which sticks up for the rights of Shoreland property owners, and he’s got a lot of shoreland to protect. A wildly successful businessman and founder of biotech firm Fisher Scientific, he owns three sizeable homes on Winnipesauke in Wolfeboro.

“The goal on this property was to have almost no water that arrives on this property wind up on the lake,” he explains. Montrone is in the process of renovating and expanding two of these houses. Along the way he has put in drains, carefully graded the land, and installed areas that gather water and let it slowly percolate into the ground. He carefully captures the rainwater run-off from his property, and lets it filter through the soil before entering the lake.

Despite everything Montrone is doing to protect water quality in his community, he was one of the driving forces for loosening the restrictions imposed by a 2008 law called the Comprehensive Shoreland Protection Act.

All About Run-Off

But let’s start with a little background.

In 2008 lawmakers passed a complicated statute trying to ensure that as much shoreland as possible would be left in its natural state. Among other things it created a point system for trees, shrubs, and groundcover within 50 feet of the shore.

The idea was basically this: during storms when rain sluices off the land into water bodies, the slower it’s moving the better that is for water quality. That’s because water moving quickly carries things that don’t belong in lakes – fertilizers, road salt, sediments, what have you. But if you slow the water down, some of that junk can settle, and erosion doesn’t eat away the shore.

A lot of shoreland owners saw the rules as too complicated and restrictive, and in 2011 the law got a major overhaul that loosened restrictions.

“Some of the changes were badly needed, they just hadn’t worked and were very difficult to implement,”

"Some of the changes were badly needed, they just hadn't worked and were very difficult to implement."

  says Durham Democratic Representative in the New Hampshire House, Judith Spang, testifying before a house committee, “but there were also some baby with the bathwater problems.”

Spang has introduced a bill that is looking to strengthen some of those protections again. The proposed changes tweak the point system to encourage homeowners to increase shrubs, groundcover, and the number of trees on shoreland. The hope is to yield changes that improve water quality, but might also have something to do with esthetics. “We were beginning to get properties where we had a few large trees, you know the Roman Coliseum kind of look rather than a natural woodlands look,” Spang explained when she introduced her bill to the House Resources, Recreation and Development Committee.

“A Crazy Quilt”

Basically, Spang’s bill is looking for the middle ground. Her proposal has high-level bipartisan support, and is likely to sail through both houses. The reason that the state has gotten involved again, is that since 2011, some lake towns that favor stronger water quality protections have started adopting pieces of the 2008 law on their own.

Wolfeboro strengthened its local controls, Moultonborough’s planning board has recommended that its voters do the same at town meeting this year, and officials in Meredith say they plan to look into watershed-wide protections once the state settles on its rules. Lawmakers are worried that before long there will be a crazy quilt of regulations that make it difficult for contractors to operate, and are hoping the new proposal will nip that in the bud.

But Meredith’s development director John Edgar says, as long as there are lake towns that want to protect their tourism economies and clean water, varied zoning ordinances are par for the course.

“In many respects,” Edgar says, “every town’s zoning is different, whether you have a 20 foot side-setback in one town, or a ten foot in another. Or this town has this code and that town has a different code. So the building community is somewhat prepped for that.”

And because many in towns like Meredith are discouraged with what they’ve seen since the law was 

"We're standing here and we're looking at the lake, and there's what people would consider horrible, evil" Montrone laughs, "We're looking at what would be in the summer would be a lawn, and then a rather narrow waterfront buffer. But there's a lawn right here, right in the place it's not supposed to be."

  changed in 2011, some are likely to hold on to stricter rules.

Mark Billings is the chairman of the Meredith conservation commission, and he says he’s not convinced the state’s latest proposal will put a stop to some of the aggressive development he has seen, like “filled in non-designated wetlands, over-cutting, huge increases in impervious surface within the buffers of the shoreland, all of which would contribute to the degradation of the water quality in the lake.”

Even in Paul Montrone’s own town, Wolfeboro, planners have adopted the state’s 2008 rule. Jamie Houle from the UNH Stormwater Center says that’s because the science is unanimous that pavement and roofs – or impervious cover in science speak – can be bad for water quality.

“No question the science is there.” Says Houle, “I mean I could probably list for you 15 references just on this link between increasing impervious cover, and a degradation of water quality.”

Houle says knowing that link, the next question is what’s the right balance between protecting the private rights of property owners, and the public good of clean lakes?

What About The Watershed?

Paul Montrone gets that. But his point is that run-off can be slowed down by engineered solutions, like the ones at his homes.

“We’re standing here and we’re looking at the lake, and there’s what people would consider horrible, evil–” Montrone laughs, “–we’re looking at what would be in the summer would be a lawn, and then a rather narrow waterfront buffer. But there’s a lawn right here, right in the place it’s not supposed to be.” But thanks to cleverly designed drainage, that he estimate cost over $25,000, his property is the source of very little runoff into the lake.

He thinks, since the state can’t be everywhere at once, what’s really needed is education, to teach homeowners like him how to do the right thing. He says the DES often relies on calls from neighbors to notify them when someone is up to something nefarious on their property, and the enforcement budget is minimal.

He also thinks a more holistic look at what’s affecting water quality rather than just focusing on the shoreline. In front of his homes, he points to the road, and a hillside dotted with lawns, all of which drain down toward the lake, “And hits that culvert, and hits that nice little quaint little creak, and goes right into Lake Winnipesaukee. Everything from up above,” he laughs again looking back at his well-drained property. “So I’m doing all that, and this is all ignored.”

Regulators may not ignore all of that for long. The EPA has recently announced that 60 towns, mostly in the more developed southeast corner of the state, will need to reduce the pollutants running into their water-bodies. Unlike, shoreland owners have a direct incentive to keep the water out their backdoor clean, these permits could require investment by people who live some distance from the water-body they are protecting. Expect the fight on these standards to be just as fierce.