John Gobeille, a wildlife biologist with Vermont Fish and Wildlife, takes a stroll through the Sandbar Wildlife Management Area last December. (File photo by Kaylee Sullivan)

The Sandbar wetland was granted the state’s highest protection last Thursday, Vermont’s wetlands program manager Laura Lapierre confirmed.

Located in Sand Bar State Park, which spans into Colchester, the wetland was one of three approved for the Class I designation at a Legislative Committee on Administrative Rules hearing.

Lapierre said she presented Sandbar as having the most exemplary and irreplaceable values of the proposed wetlands. It’s also the largest wetland area.

Prior to last Thursday, there were three Class I wetlands in Vermont, Lapierre said, amounting to a little over 1,000 acres. At about 1,300 acres, Sand Bar more than doubles the state’s Class I protections.

“This is the first time the agency has proactively sought after the highest level or protections for wetlands,” Lapierre said. “All other classifications have happened through the petition process.”

Initially, the agency proposed four wetlands for the rule change: Sandbar, Black Gum Swamps in Vernon, Dennis Pond Wetlands in Brunswick and Chickering Fen in Calais. Only the Vernon wetland failed to pass, Lapierre said, due to concern from townspeople.

Her program plans to work with Vernon on more education and outreach, she said, because the agency firmly believes it’s worthy of the designation.

As for Sandbar, there were no questions or reservations around the rule, she said.

Once the wetlands program receives the official letter from the state in the coming weeks, staff will file an adoptive letter with the secretary of state before May 16. It will officially become a rule 25 days later.

Before then, Lapierre said her program will reach out to landowners along Sand Bar to make them aware of the approved change.

With the new designation comes a change in buffer zone; the current 50 feet doubles to 100, the Class I default.

If landowners or organizations along the outskirts of Sandbar wish to develop, they’ll pitch it to the wetlands program, which will decide if it would alter the wellbeing of the wetland. For a new project to be approved, it would need to improve public health and safety, Lapierre previously said.

As of now, though, no one is proposing any impacts to the wetland, including Vermont Fish and Wildlife, which owns a majority of the land.

“I kind of expected it to pass,” state wildlife biologist John Gobeille said of the designation.

Most of the work the department will do at Sandbar this coming year either doesn’t affect the wetland or has been grandfathered in, Gobeille said. No plans are in place for several years to come, he added.

No existing structures, like dike management and homeowners’ boat docks, are affected by the rule change, Lapierre said.

The wetlands program is happy to work with any landowners who are interested in future restoration efforts, she said. Camp Kiniya, a youth camp adjacent to the wetland, has also started conversations on how to better protect the wetland, Lapierre said.

Sandbar is home to 29 rare, threatened or endangered species and serves as a transitional zone between Lake Champlain and the Lamoille River.

“We encourage those individuals to consider whether there are ways they can help further restore and enhance the functions sand values of Sand Bar for everyone,” Lapierre said.