Tolleson loses bid to strip buffers from Ga. wetlands
By JIM WALLS
March 25, 2013 — Sen. Ross Tolleson lost badly last week when he tried an end run around a judge’s ruling protecting wetlands across Georgia.
Tolleson, who chairs the Natural Resources Committee, took to the well Friday seeking to amend an unrelated bill with language that, he said, would clarify the state’s rules for development around state waters.
The amendment would also have cleared the way, however, for Grady County to proceed with building a 960-acre lake near Cairo, Ga. The proposed Tired Creek Fishing Reservoir is much more about fishing than water supply; plans at one time also called for developing lakefront homes, a golf course and other amenities.
Administrative law judge Kristin Miller blocked the development in January, ruling that the 25-foot no-development buffer in Georgia law applies to all state waters, including wetlands. In her decision, Miller found that Judson Turner, director of the state Environmental Protection Division, had improperly granted a buffer variance without considering the impact on 129 acres of wetlands that would be flooded by the Tired Creek project.
The decision came in a suit brought by the Southern Environmental Law Center against Turner and the Grady County Commission. Both defendants have appealed Miller’s decision.
Tolleson only mentioned the dispute obliquely, and only after Sens. Steve Henson and Jason Carter peppered him with questions from the floor. Tolleson acknowledged that his amendment never went through a hearing process and members of the Natural Resources Committee had never even seen it.
“The amendment is making a dramatic change in the way that we buffer fresh water in this state,” Carter said, arguing Georgia shouldn’t take that step without more thoughtful deliberation.
Also undercutting Tolleson’s chances of success, he tried to tack his amendment onto an economic development bill to speed up the permitting process for film crews to work in coastal marshlands. Senators from both parties implored their colleagues not to risk holding up a job-creating bill by grafting the Tired Creek controversy onto it.
In the end, even senators in Tolleson’s own party weren’t buying it. Tolleson’s amendment lost in a show-of-hands vote of 25-11.
Afterward, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle left the podium for a few moments as senators milled about before the next bill could be considered. Viewers of the Senate’s video feed could hear one word clearly, presumably picked up by Cagle’s open mike: “outrageous.”
Make of that what you will. There’s no way to know who said it or what they were talking about, but it’s understandable that some might feel it concerned Tolleson’s just-concluded business.