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Assembly panel approves bill to relax wetland regulations (UPDATE)

Associated Press

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Wisconsin Republicans moved closer on Tuesday toward relaxing wetland-development regulations, passing a bill out of committee that would allow developers to fill state wetlands without permits and scale back mitigation requirements.

The GOP-controlled Assembly Committee on Regulatory Licensing Reform voted 6-3 along party lines to approve the bill. The favorable recommendation clears the way for a vote by the full Assembly. Aides to Republican Majority Leader Jim Steineke, the chief author of the Assembly bill, said he expects to schedule a floor vote sometime this month.

Democrats on the committee warned the proposal would result in widespread loss of wetlands, noting a host of outdoor and conservation groups oppose the proposal.

“Once these wetlands are paved over, there’s no going back,” Rep. Jonathan Brostoff of Milwaukee said. “I hope we all take a deep breath and understand these implications.”

Republican Rep. Romaine Quinn of Barron countered that small towns and businesses can’t expand because they can’t afford mitigation costs to build on wetlands.

“This bill is absolutely critical for rural areas that are struggling to develop with their limited resources,” he said.

Republicans and their allies in the construction industry have long groused about the state Department of Natural Resources’ wetland permitting process, saying it stymies business expansion.

Under the bill, developers could fill up to an acre of urban wetlands and up to 3 acres per parcel of wetlands outside urban areas if their work were related to building an agricultural structure  and as long as the activity wouldn’t disturb rare and high-quality wetlands. They also could fill any artificial wetland without first obtaining a permit.

The proposal also walks back mitigation requirements.

Right now, developers have three choices: buy or apply credits from a mitigation bank; create 1.2 new wetland acres for every acre destroyed within the same watershed or a half-mile of a given site; or pay into a fund the DNR uses to restore wetlands.

Under the bill, developers wouldn’t have to mitigate the first 1.5 acres of non-urban wetlands they destroy. The DNR would have to use a third of its restoration fund to set up a grant program for nonprofit groups working on wetland-restoration projects on land acquired through the state-stewardship program.

An earlier version of the bill would have allowed developers to fill state wetlands anywhere in Wisconsin without a permit. Steineke issued a statement on Thursday saying the new version comes in response to opponents’ concerns and preserves quality wetlands and duck habitats.

Ducks Unlimited has emerged as one of the bill’s most prominent opponents, warning that destroying wetlands will increase flooding and ruin wildlife habitat. The group said earlier this week that the new version of the bill still opens up countless wetland acres to destruction. A spokesman for the organization didn’t immediately respond to a message on Thursday.

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