Protecting Riparian Buffers in Athens
Athens-Clarke County Commissioners are currently
debating rules for protecting water quality
from some of the impacts of development.
Buffers: Why They Are Important
Riparian buffers, also known as stream buffers, streamside management zones,
and protected river corridors, are areas of land along streams and rivers
that are left in a natural state to help maintain clean water and healthy
aquatic communities. Riparian buffers are important to protect because
they perform many useful functions. Buffers:
Riparian buffers are an essential tool for growing communities that want
to protect water quality.
Filter sediment and pollutants from runoff;
Reduce the impacts of floods;
Stabilize stream banks;
Provide habitat for wildlife;
Shade the water to maintain a healthy temperature for aquatic life;
Provide leaves and other material that serve as energy sources for the
Provide logs and other woody debris that serve as aquatic habitat;
Improve the appearance of the stream and increase property values
Narrow Buffers May Not Be Good Enough
As a general rule, wider riparian buffers provide better water quality
protection and more wildlife habitat than narrow buffers. Narrow buffers
may be enough to stabilize banks but will not provide many other benefits.
Ideally, buffers should vary based on site-specific characteristics, such
as slope, width of the floodplain, and the presence of wetlands. If a variable-width
buffer is not used, then the width should be at least 75 feet to provide
sufficient water quality protection.
Small Streams Need Buffers, Too
Even the narrow creek that runs through a neighborhood back yard may support
a diverse assemblage of aquatic life. Protection of these smaller creeks
and streams is particularly important because:
Itís not enough just to protect our large rivers; riparian buffers are
critical even on small streams that dry up in the summer (called intermittents).
they are very abundant;
they feed into larger steams and rivers, and
they are sensitive to sedimentation.
Buffers and the Land Use Plan
The Guiding Principles of the Athens-Clarke Land Use Plan call for protection
of our water by preserving a strip of land as wide as 200 ft along streams.
Many commissioners are now trying to cut this down to 50 ft or 25 ft on
all streams, except where wider buffers are required by state law. This
may not be enough to protect aquatic resources, and it is contrary to what
the people of Athens have called for in public meetings and surveys. The
Athens Grow Green Coalition is advocating buffer protection that includes:
a minimum buffer width of 75 feet on all perennial streams, and 50 ft on
all intermittent streams
requirement for a field survey to determine the presence of streams, rather
than relying on the Environmental Areas Map, which omits most small
What about property rights?
The Athens buffer ordinance will only apply to new development. Existing
structures and ongoing activities are exempted. The effect of a buffer
ordinance is not to prevent development, but to ensure that it occurs in
the less environmentally sensitive areas of properties. The ordinance also
respects private property rights by allowing variances for cases where
properties are small or when it is not possible to develop the property
without infringing upon the buffer.
What You Can Do
The Athens-Clarke County Commission is expected to vote on riparian buffer
protection as part of the Environmental Areas chapter of the Zoning and
Development Standards in October, 2000. These issues are likely to be discussed
at the agenda-setting meeting on September 19. If you want to express your
opinion on this issue, call your commissioners and attend upcoming Mayor
and Commission Meetings. The remainder of the Zoning and Development Code
may be voted on in subsequent months.
Other Tools for Quality Growth
Riparian buffers are one of several components of good Zoning and Development
Standards. To be most effective, they should be complemented by a good
stormwater control ordinance, strong enforcement of erosion and sedimentation
laws, zoning that prevents sprawl, tree protection rules, and other tools.
Together, these components will allow communities to grow while protecting
water and air quality.
For more information
Athens Grow Green Coalition September, 2000
- Two publications on riparian buffers are available from the University of
Georgia Institute of Ecology. A Review of the Scientific Literature
on Riparian Buffer Width, Extent and Vegetation provides scientific
background on the issue. A Guidebook for Developing Local Riparian
Buffer Ordinances gives the information and support necessary for
drafting a buffer ordinance and includes a model ordinance. Both are
available online at http://www.ecology.uga.edu/outreach/home.htm
or by calling 706-583-0463.
- The proposed Athens-Clarke Zoning and Development Standards are available
online at http://www.negia.net/~accplan/