- Associated Press - Thursday, December 21, 2017

MADISON, Wis. (AP) - The authors of a Republican bill that would allow developers to fill state wetlands without a permit promised their fellow lawmakers Thursday that the measure would ease businesses’ regulatory burden and won’t result in any net wetland loss.

Sen. Roger Roth and Assembly Majority Leader Roger Roth addressed the Senate’s natural resources committee and the Assembly’s licensing committee during a packed joint hearing on the bill. They said the measure would affect only a fraction of Wisconsin’s wetlands since most are under federal jurisdiction. They also stressed builders would still have to compensate for wetland losses just as they do now.

“This is just streamlining the permitting process,” Roth said. “If we do this the sky won’t fall.”

Sen. Mark Miller, a Madison Democrat, pushed back. Filling wetlands reduces flood protection, eliminates natural pollution filters and destroys wildlife habitat, he warned.

“This bill would not let us fulfill our constitutional obligations as legislators to protect the waters of this state,” Miller said.

As much as 30 percent of Wisconsin’s 5 million or so wetland acres are under state jurisdiction, according to estimates. The rest of the state’s wetlands are under federal control because they’re part of navigable water systems such as Lake Superior or the Mississippi River.

Republicans and their allies in the construction industry have long bristled at DNR permit requirements for filling state wetlands, complaining the process slows business expansion.

Under the bill, developers would no longer need DNR permits to fill artificial or state wetlands. They would still have to abide by compensation requirements in state law. Right now, developers have three choices. They can create 1.2 acres of wetlands for every acre filled in the same watershed or within a half-mile of the site; they can purchase credits from a mitigation bank; or they can pay into a fund the DNR uses to restore wetlands.

The bill would require the DNR to spend all the money currently in the fund by mid-2019. After that the agency would have two years to spend all money the fund takes in.

Republicans set the stage for the bill by passing a $3 billion incentives package to lure a Foxconn Technology Group plant to Pleasant Prairie. The package allows the Taiwanese electronics giant to fill wetlands without permits. WMC lobbyist Scott Manley said in August the package could provide a “proof of concept” for regulatory reform.

Conservationists and Republicans alike predicted the Foxconn incentives would lead to much broader environmental rollbacks after critics complained other businesses don’t enjoy similar perks.

The Dairy Business Association, the state builders association, the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation, the state cranberry growers and Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, the state’s largest business group, have registered in support of the permit exemption bill. Registered against are the Wisconsin Wetlands Association and the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation as well as the Sierra Club and Nature Conservancy’s state chapters and Ducks Unlimited.

Howard Kamerer, president and CEO of Wow Logistics, a company based in Fox Crossing that builds warehouses, told the committees that efforts to fill out the DNR’s wetland permit applications have delayed $23 million worth of projects in Marshfield and Little Chute by months. He said the current regulatory structure is so cumbersome that developers look to avoid areas with any indication of a wetland, choosing to build instead on farmland and exacerbating urban sprawl.

“The current wetland regulatory requirements represent the single biggest obstacle to the state’s industrial development in the next six years,” Kamerer said.

Martin Voss told the committees that wetlands make up about a quarter of his 85 acres in Eau Claire County. He said he’s worried about frogs, toads and other reptiles that depend on wetlands. Creating new wetlands won’t help the area that loses them, he said.

“(The bill is) short-sighted for a short-term gain economically,” he said.

Nels Swenson, state policy chair for Ducks Unlimited, said in submitted testimony that the bill would lead to the destruction of wetland habitat that coveted mallards need to survive and reproduce.

“The potential impacts,” Swenson wrote, “are unacceptable.”

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Follow Todd Richmond on Twitter at https://twitter.com/trichmond1

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