Bill to post warnings at beaches advances

By Joshua Benton
Blade Columbus Bureau

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COLUMBUS — The Ohio House of Representatives unanimously approved a bill aimed at telling swimmers when it’s not safe to go into the water at public beaches.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Linda Furney (D., Toledo), requires the state to post signs at all public beaches where bacterial levels exceed safe levels. Currently, testing for bacteria is required, but the sign posting is not.

“This bill brings a renewed sense of confidence for swimming in our lakes,” Ms. Furney said.

It was passed 93-0 yesterday during the General Assembly’s first full session after Tuesday’s elections. It will be returned to the Senate in two weeks for expected approval of changes made by the House. It then will go to the governor for his signature.

Ms. Furney introduced the bill a year ago after discovering that Lake Erie beaches, such as the one at Maumee Bay State Park, had very high bacterial levels on some days, but no signs being posted.

Bacterial counts were found to be at what the state considers unsafe levels on 12 occasions during a 40-day period in the summer at four beaches in Lucas and Ottawa counties. The tests were by a private firm hired by The Blade. But signs alerting swimmers of the danger were only posted for three of those days.

E. coli bacteria can cause nausea, dysentery, hepatitis, and a variety of ear, nose, and throat ailments. Particularly at risk are the young, the old, and those with weakened immune systems.

“The most vulnerable of our population need to be protected from bacterial contamination at Lake Erie beaches, and this will help do just that,” said Amy Simpson, director of the Ohio Public Interest Research Group, which has been pushing Ms. Furney’s bill for more than a year.

High bacterial levels are primarily caused by bird droppings and by heavy rains and winds, which can sweep human and animal feces into the water.

In other action, the House approved a bill aimed at preserving farmland threatened by suburban sprawl. It allows farmers to sell or donate easements on their farm land to local governments to guarantee it will continue to be used for agriculture.

“This is about protecting one of our most important nonrenewable resources,” said State Rep. Gene Krebs (R., Camden).

Mr. Krebs said passing the bill would help balance a bias in state law that encourages sprawl by subsidizing expenses like sewer line extensions.

He stressed that, under the bill, decisions remain with local governments, who could choose not to use their new power. But some localities would likely feel so strongly about stopping or slowing development that they would be willing to purchase an easement.

“This is only for willing buyers and willing sellers,” he said.

But Rep. Richard Hodges (R., Swanton) said that putting easements in the hands of politicians means that development interests would simply have to apply political pressure of local leaders to be able to extend development. He pointed to a clause in the bill which allows for the easement to be “extinguished” if land becomes un farmable.

“It’ll just be, `Oh, gosh, it’s impractical to use that land for agriculture,’ and one way or another, it’ll be developed,” he said.

Still, the bill passed 87-5.

The measure will go back to the Senate for approval of changes, then to the governor.