Wetlands handling: Mixed reviews At issue: Too much red tape or too little?

THE BALTIMORE EVENING SUN

A June 6 story in The Evening Sun incorrectly suggested that some applications to build on nontidal wetlands had not been acted on within the required 45 days.

State Department of Natural Resources officials say they have responded to all applications within the required time, but that 35 percent of them were incomplete and needed more data.

State officials say Maryland's new non-tidal wetlands protection program has been an unqualified success, but the 5-month-old regulatory effort is drawing mixed reviews from some developers, landowners and environmentalists.

Department of Natural Resources officials say they have given prompt go-aheads to 45 percent of the 483 applications received since Jan. 1. In the process, they say, they have created more inland marsh on state-owned land than has been lost so far to development.

"We got into this business to provide better protection of the resource and better service," said Catherine Pieper Stevenson,DNR's water resources director.

Non-tidal wetlands are inland bogs, marshes, low-lying forests and fields that may be "wet" only part of the year. Once regarded as nuisances to be filled in, they now are recognized by biologists as natural "sponges" that soak up pollutants, help control flooding and provide food and shelter to a variety of plants and animals.

The General Assembly enacted Maryland's non-tidal wetlands law in 1989 at the behest of Gov. William Donald Schaefer, who contended that halting their loss to farming and development was crucial to restoring Chesapeake Bay. The law committed the state to speedy processing of landowners' requests to build in wetlands while ensuring that more wetlands would be created or replaced than are lost to development.

The state has yet to issue its first permit to disturb non-tidal wetlands, even though the regulations set strict timetables for acting on applications.

About 35 percent of the applications have been held up, despite a 45-day deadline for initial processing of them, because they lacked needed information, DNR officials say.

But DNR officials say they have issued 18 "letters of exemption" allowing landowners to build homes without having to go through the permit process and replace the non-tidal wetlands destroyed.

Another 196 applicants were authorized to go ahead with building because their projects were declared exempt from the non-tidal wetlands regulations for various reasons. DNR officials said they did not know how many acres might be affected by those exemptions, but they said that half were cleared because they did not even involve wetlands.

The 18 projects given exemption letters consumed less than one-fourth of an acre of non-tidal wetlands in all, officials said, because DNR staff helped landowners minimize how much building they planned to do in "wet" areas.

"People with small projects are getting quick answers," Stevenson said. "I think we really are providing service, and we really are getting people to reduce impacts [on wetlands]."

"Everything is working well," said Thomas Filip, assistant chief of the regulatory branch of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Baltimore district office. The Army, which under federal law is zTC responsible for issuing permits to fill wetlands, decided last year to give Maryland most of the responsibility for regulating non-tidal wetlands in the state.

"The whole object is to let the state run with the ball and see if they can't run the program better than we did," said Filip.

Not everyone agrees that the state has improved on the federal government's handling of non-tidal wetlands, which have been the focus of intense national debate.

Farmers, landowners and business groups are pressing the Bush administration and Congress to roll back what they see as an infringement of their property rights, while environmentalists are fighting to prevent a weakening of the federal law and regulations.

While Maryland farmers and some developers say they have no real complaints so far with the state wetlands program, at least one Eastern Shore builder says it has been "an absolute catastrophe," an added layer of red tape that has created costly delays in erecting new homes.

Martin Groff, a Salisbury-based builder, says he has had to lay off 10 to 12 employees because of delays and difficulties in getting state approval to build homes in Worcester County.

"Basically, we've set up another bureaucratic nightmare, as far as I'm concerned," Groff said in a telephone interview.

Groff said he has been told he needs to get a permit to build homes in a partly completed housing development he has in Pocomoke City, where he already has streets, streetlights and utilities. State officials have refused to grant him exemptions, despite a provision allowing for destruction of up to 5,000 square feet of wetlands for building a home.

"I'm working on some [projects] now that have been in the works for maybe three months, and we still don't have permits in hand," he said.

Margaret Ann Reigle, chairwoman of the Fairness to Land Owners Committee in Dorchester County, also said that "landowners tell me they're getting the same runaround" they've complained about from the federal wetlands permitting program overseen by the Army corps.

State officials acknowledge that some applications to build homes in wetlands at Ocean Pines, a sprawling retirement community near Ocean City, were held up until a few weeks ago, when DNR convinced the corps it planned to replace the wetlands that may be lost there. Corps officials had estimated that nearly 200 acres of wetlands along the sensitive coastal bays in Worcester County could be destroyed if homes were built on all the thousands of already platted lots in Ocean Pines.

Stevenson said she was unfamiliar with Groff's situation, but she noted that DNR regulations were intended to make it easier for individual landowners, not developers, to build homes. And she contended that she has heard far more compliments than complaints from applicants.

Environmentalists, however, also are complaining that they have been kept in the dark about the state program, and they say they fear that Maryland officials may be too eager to help landowners wanting to disturb a little wetlands each time without worrying about the cumulative impact of all the exemptions granted.

"We just don't have enough information," said Vivian Newman of the Sierra Club. "We really feel as if they [state officials] have clammed up on us. . . . I fear the program is in fact greasing the skids for development."

DNR officials acknowledge that environmentalists are unhappy about not being notified of every application. But they contend it would be too costly to mail out notices to interested parties on every project, as the corps does now. State officials say they are considering some ideas for limited public notification of pending requests.

Meanwhile, DNR has begun creating "new" wetlands to make up for those lost by such exemptions, where landowners are not required to replace the small amount of wetlands they destroy to build a single home or outbuilding.

The first such project is a former farm field owned by the state on Wye Island in Queen Anne's County. DNR officials hope the 6-acre site, bisected by a drainage ditch, will become wooded wetlands again if left untilled.

Such wetlands restoration or enhancements might cost as little as $5,000 per acre, compared with costs of up to 10 times that much to create new freshwater bogs or marshes by excavating uplands. Such low-cost projects are important because, while landowners may be required to replace wetlands they disturb, ++ the state has pledged to create or restore wetlands lost through exemptions it grants for home construction and farming activity.

DNR officials say they have identified hundreds of acres of potential wetlands on state-owned property throughout Maryland, and they are looking for farmers willing to let marginally productive fields such as the Wye Island site on the Eastern Shore return to wetland, in return for government compensation.

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