Bills would wrest wetlands oversight away from DEQ
Michigan’s regulatory environment could become less burdensome and its cost to taxpayers reduced under either of two proposed laws recently introduced in the Michigan Legislature. Senate Bill 1112, sponsored by Sen. Roger Kahn, R-Saginaw, and House Bill 4901, sponsored by Rep. John Moolenaar, R-Midland, would strip the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality of its authority to authorize building permits near wetlands. The practical effect of both bills would be to return oversight of Michigan wetlands to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Federal rather than state oversight is the norm in all but Michigan and New Jersey, according to Russ Harding, director of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy’s Property Rights Network and a former director of the Michigan DEQ. Harding asserts that adopting federal oversight would put Michigan on an "even footing" with the rest of the nation and allow the state to implement a more streamlined federal standard that most investors better understand.
As an added bonus, Harding estimates an annual taxpayer savings of $1 million to $2 million if the state ceases its redundant wetlands regulatory regime. This is just one of four substantial environmental policy changes Harding recommends for lowering the regulatory hurdles to doing business in Michigan while maintaining protections of our state’s natural resources. Together, his suggestions could save taxpayers an estimated $8.9 million to $9.9 million per year.
A spokesperson for the DEQ disagrees that the federal regime is more flexible, telling one Oakland County community newspaper that in other states it "takes too long to get permits to build on wetlands." He said that the DEQ also provides a higher level of environmental protection because there are issues of "local expertise" involving wetlands which the federal government "just can’t have."
Rep. Chuck Moss, R-Birmingham, whose district includes part of a region in Oakland County that is rich with lakefront property, disagrees. He told the newspaper that the DEQ wetlands bureaucracy is "obstructionist," "difficult to deal with" and "hostile to any kind of human activity." He asserted that the federal alternative could not possibly be worse and that New Jersey — the only other state to run its own wetlands program — is probably not an example of environmental protection that Michigan should continue to emulate.
Rep. David Law, R-Commerce, whose neighboring district also contains a substantial number of lakes, supports keeping the DEQ wetlands regime in place. "I don’t trust the federal government to come in and tell us what to do," he said. "I don’t think that’s right."
But Moolenaar believes it is the DEQ that is giving too many "heavy-handed" orders and that his bill will be a remedy. "The draconian nature of some of their actions has stopped businesses from expanding and creating jobs," he said. "The federal government has much more experience in the wetlands permitting process and will properly balance the protection of our natural resources with the inherent need for economic development."
House Bill 4901 has been referred to the House Commerce Committee, which is chaired by Rep. Andy Meisner, D-Ferndale. Senate Bill 1112 has been referred to the Senate Natural Resources and Environmental Affairs Committee, which is chaired by Sen. Patricia Birkholz, R-Saugatuck.
For additional information regarding this issue, please see www.mackinac.org/9448.