Governor signs controversial wetlands bill into law

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Gov. Eric Holcomb signed a controversial wetlands bill into law on Thursday, disappointing numerous environmental, conservation and civic groups that had spoken out against the legislation.

The legislation, Senate Enrolled Act 389, eliminates a 2003 law that had required builders and developers to secure permits for construction and development in certain state-regulated wetlands. The new legislation also ends enforcement against landowners accused of violating wetlands laws.

Lawmakers passed the legislation on April 14, and it made its way to the governor’s office on Wednesday. Holcomb had seven days in which to decide whether he would sign the bill into law or veto it, but he opted to take quick action.

Some parts of the bill are retroactive to Jan. 1, some take effect immediately and others take effect July 1.

As originally introduced, the bill would have eliminated permit requirements for all classes of wetlands. But after environmental groups and state regulatory officials objected, the bill was scaled back.

“This bill was improved in the House of Representatives after I made my opposition known and I appreciate the changes made by lawmakers,” Holcomb said in a written statement issued after signing the wetlands bill. “Even still, I felt compelled to carefully and deliberately weigh the bill’s intent to protect property rights against its new limitations on land protections. Under this new regulatory scheme, I believe Hoosier farmers and landowners will continue to be careful stewards of the land.”

The Indiana Builders Association had supported the legislation. IBJ was unable to reach the organization for comment Thursday evening. But in a statement posted Tuesday on its website, the organization said the legislation “strikes a balance between reasonable regulations on property owners with isolated wetlands on their property and protecting the environment.”

Also in that statement, the organization said the new legislation will make housing more affordable by reducing the cost of development. “Regulations at the federal, state and local level now account for roughly 25% of the cost of a house. This is no sticks or bricks, but government regulations, such as Indiana’s isolated wetlands program, pushing the price of housing up to levels that are becoming out of reach for many Hoosiers.”

But statewide environmental and conservation groups, faith-based organizations, local government officials and others had urged Holcomb to veto the wetlands bill. On Thursday, those groups expressed their unhappiness over the governor’s decision.

“I am extremely disappointed,” said Jeff Stant, executive director of the Indiana Forest Alliance. “We, essentially overnight, have thrown out all legal protection for 550,000 to 600,000 of the 800,000 acres of wetlands that were remaining in the state. That’s a shocking level of reduction.”

Wetlands are important, Stant said, because they act as “huge sponges” that help prevent flooding by absorbing rainfall and snow melt. The wetlands also provide vital habitat for wildlife and help filter the groundwater that supplies drinking water for many Hoosiers, he added.

The Indiana Chamber of Commerce had also spoken out against the bill.

“It’s surprising and very disappointing that the Governor signed a bill that is likely to have negative impacts on Indiana’s water quality, flood control and quality of place factors that the state needs to attract and retain a skilled workforce,” Indiana Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Kevin Brinegar said in a statement.

While Indiana’s wetlands regulations did need improvement, Brinegar said, “it’s unfortunate that legislators chose to rush to action on this matter and not take the proper time to study something that will have such significant ramifications for citizens and businesses, with more than half of the state’s 800,000 acres of wetlands now being eliminated from protection.”

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