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Landowner's Guide to Wetlands

What to Know Before You Purchase Land or Build

Vermont Wetland Information

Vermont has many types of wetlands, and some are not obvious at first glance.  To help decide if your building project or potential land purchase involves a wetland, simply follow the steps below to assess the site in question.

Wetland trees and ferns.  Green ferns are seen in the foreground and trees are seen towards the background in front of a grassy field behind the trees.      Mown field that is not an obvious wetland.  In the foreground a green grassy field is seen and in the background trees are seen and behind that is a dark colored car driving down a road.
Not all wetlands look like the familiar cattail marsh or beaver pond.  Wetlands like those shown above may not be obvious at first glance.  

Step 1: Wetland Screening Tool

The easiest way to research whether a property has jurisdictional wetlands associated with it is to use the Wetland Screening Tool.  In addition to the Vermont Wetland Inventory Maps, the tool also screens for nearby hydric soils, wetland projects, wetland permits, wetland natural community types, and wetland advisory layers. The results for a given property are listed for you to see, with explanations of each layer and recommended next steps. You can also produce a map of the results. To get started, all you need is the 911 address or the SPAN number for an undeveloped property.

Topographical map showing wetland areas

Vermont Wetland Maps are available for viewing.

Drawing of map and drafting tools

Step 2: Wetland Indicators*

Use the checklist below to identify evidence of wetland plants, soils, and hydrology on the property.  A printer-friendly PDF version is available by clicking here.  Bring a shovel & plant guides to help you determine if a wetland exists.
*This checklist is a guide.  Wetland professionals are required to delineate wetland boundaries in VT.

Wetland Indicators Checklist
Check those that apply

Is water present?

_____Are there ponds, streams, lakes, springs or seeps present?

_____Are depressions present where water pools during wet periods in the growing season?

_____Is the ground often soggy under foot?

_____Do trees have shallow roots, water marks on the trunks, or forest debris deposited on their trunks?

Are wetland plants present?

_____Are cattails, sedges, rushes, New England aster, sphagnum moss, skunk cabbage, dwarf raspberry, blueberry, or marsh marigold present?

_____Are sensitive , ostrich, or cinnamon ferns present?

_____Are willow, red maple, tamarack, white cedar, balsam fir, black spruce, alder, green or black ash trees or saplings present?

_____Are meadowsweet, leatherleaf, steeplebush, arrowwood, or wild raisin present?

_____Do trees in the area have roots growing across the ground, swollen trunk bases, or flat root bases when wind thrown or tipped over?

Is your soil a wetland soil?
* Dig a hole 20 inches down to answer the questions below

_____Is the soil dark brown, black, gray, gray‐blue or gray‐green, does it have rusty, red, or dark streaks?

_____Does the soil smell like rotten eggs, feel greasy, mushy, or wet? Can you squeeze out water?

_____Does water enter the hole after a few minutes?

Ask Yourself This:

_____Are there places you don’t mow because it is too wet?

_____ Do you think to yourself, “That’s a good place for a pond”? 

_____Are there places you wouldn’t drive heavy equipment for fear of sinking?

_____Do the trees tip over frequently in your woods?

_____Is there an area that is wet only part of the year? 

_____Does the vegetation look different in a spot lower than the surrounding areas?

_____Do you hear frogs in the spring from that wet area?

If the answer is YES to any of these, you may have a wetland!

Step 3: Wetland Regulations

State wetland regulations require that wetlands provide significant function and value to Vermonters in order to be protected.  Both the wetland and at least a 50‐foot buffer zone are protected.  The following wetlands are presumed to provide function and value, and so are subject to the Vermont Wetland Rules:

  • Any wetland on the VSWI map
  • Any wetland contiguous or connected to the VSWI mapped wetland (so look for VSWI wetlands in close proximity to your property)
  • Any wetland that is the same type and size as what is on the VSWI maps (1/2 acre or larger)
  • Wetlands over or under a half acre that:
    • Are adjacent to a stream, lake, pond, or river
    • Are vernal pools
    • Are special and unique wetlands like bogs or fens
    • Are headwaters above 2500’ in elevation
    • Are adjacent to impaired waters

What happens next?

In most cases, if you can stay 50 feet away or more from the edge of the wetland, you won’t need to do anything.  If you don’t know where the edge of the wetland is, you may need to contact a wetland professional to determine the edge of that wetland. 

If there is no way to avoid doing work in the wetland or buffer zone, you may need a permit from the State and/or the Army Corps of Engineers.
Click here to visit our permits page to find out more.

Don’t want to get a Permit? Consider the Following:

Maybe you don’t need to impact those wetlands!

  • In most cases, wetland permits are only required if your activity is proposed in the wetland or within 50 feet of the edge of the wetland.
  • If purchasing land, make sure there is plenty of upland for your driveway, home, lawn and septic.
  • If you are near wetlands, look at the following ways to avoid impacts to wetlands and buffer zones:
    • Adjust the location and orientation of buildings so they are in uplands;
    • Find out if there is more than one way to access the site; or,
    • Scale back the size of your project.

Wetland Violations are Costly

  • The time and money spent on enforcement, for fines, restoration, and legal fees, exceeds the time and money spent to get the appropriate permits.
  • Violations of environmental regulations are subject to fines of up to $42,500 for the initial violation, and $17,000 per day if the violation continues.
  • As part of an enforcement action, all the work you did may have to be removed and the wetland restored.
  • Ongoing enforcement may potentially undermine the marketability of your property.
  • You may loose eligibility for funding such as USDA Crop Insurance for farmers.

Need More Information? Have Other Questions?

State of Vermont:
Department of Environmental Conservation
Watershed Management Division
Wetlands Program
1 National Life Drive
Montpelier, VT 05620‐3522

Vermont Wetland Inventory Map

Your town or city Zoning Official, Conservation Commission, or Planning Commission

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
VTDistrict Office

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Region 1, Wetlands Protection Section

Click here or on the photo below to download the Landowner's Guide to Wetlands in PDF format.

Landowner's Guide to Wetlands Cover.  An image showing lily pads growing in the foreground and high grasses in the background.

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