Environmental Protection Division
O.C.G.A. Section 12-7-6(16) normally requires an undisturbed natural vegetative buffer of 25 feet to be retained adjacent to any state waters.
This is in response to your request for an official opinion from this office regarding the interpretation of the term "stream banks" as used in O.C.G.A. Section 12-7-6(16). Specifically, you ask whether O.C.G.A. Section 12-7-6(16) requires a 25 foot undisturbed natural vegetative buffer to be retained adjacent to all state waters, except as otherwise specified, or whether the use of the term "stream banks" limits the required buffer to bodies of flowing water so as to exempt ponds, lakes, reservoirs, and coastal marshes.
The Erosion and Sedimentation Act (O.C.G.A. Section 12-7-1, et seq.) sets forth certain minimum requirements which govern land disturbing activities. One such requirement provides:
An undisturbed natural vegetative buffer of 25 feet measured from the stream banks shall normally be retained adjacent [*2] to any state waters except where otherwise required by Part 6 of Article 5 of Chapter 5 of this title, the "Metropolitan River Protection Act," or by the department pursuant to Code Section 12-2-8, or when the economic use or the contour of the land require a different buffer subject to the division's approval, or where a drainage structure must be constructed, provided that adequate erosion control measures are incorporated in the project plans and specifications and are implemented;. . . . O.C.G.A. Section 12-7-6(16).
The intent of the Soil Erosion and Sedimentation Act is to strengthen and extend the erosion and sediment control activities and programs of the state. O.C.G.A. Section 12-7-2. The Act defines "state waters" to mean:
"any and all rivers, streams, creeks, branches, lakes, reservoirs, ponds, drainage systems, springs, wells, and other bodies of surface or subsurface water, natural or artificial, lying within or forming part of the boundaries of the state, which are not entirely confined and retained completely upon the property of a single individual, partnership, or corporation." O.C.G.A. Section 12-7-3(11).
A statute needs no interpretation when its meaning [*3] is plain and unambiguous. Central of Georgia Railroad Co. v. Tucker, 99 Ga. App. 52, 57 (1959). Section 12-7-6(16) states that "an undisturbed natural vegetative buffer of 25 feet measured from the stream banks shall normally be retained adjacent to any state waters. . . ." (Emphasis added). The language directs that a vegetative buffer normally be retained adjacent to any state water. The term "stream banks" merely directs where the measurement of the buffer shall begin. It cannot be said that use of the term "stream banks" limits the subsequent language which sets forth to which waters the requirement applies. When the Act applies to less than all state waters, the General Assembly used language other than "state waters." See O.C.G.A. Section 12-7-6(13).
Based upon the above, it is my official opinion that the 25 foot undisturbed natural vegetative buffer referenced in Code Section 12-7-6(16) is normally to be retained adjacent to any state waters, including, but not limited to, ponds, lakes, reservoirs, and coastal marshes.