Wetlands rule sinks his dream home Catonsville man told he can't build on lot in Dorchester County.


Richard E. Adamski spent 24 years catching lawbreakers for the Maryland State Police.

Now the retired trooper says he is tempted to break the law himself "and let 'em lock me up."

The target of his frustration is the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which, Adamski claims, stands between him and his dream of building a retirement home on the Eastern Shore.

Adamski, who lives in Catonsville, bought a wooded lot, three-fourths of an acre, last year in a small subdivision in rural Dorchester County. He planned to put a three-bedroom rancher and do a little commercial crabbing.

But the Army told Adamski that the land, which he paid $15,500 for, is a federally protected non-tidal wetland. If he wants to build on it, the Army says, he must obtain a quarter-acre of cleared wetlands somewhere else and replant it with wetland-type shrubs and trees.

Adamski, who works now as a security guard in Columbia, says he cannot afford to comply with the Army's conditions, which were laid down more than a year after he bought the land.

"If I've got to go buy a quarter-acre, that's six or seven grand, and who the hell's going to sell you a quarter of an acre?" he asks angrily. "According to their regulations, my property is a body of water, and there isn't a drop of water on it."

How "wet" must a wetland be to deserve protection from development? And where will the line be drawn to achieve the national goal of "no net loss" of wetlands?

Those are the basic questions the Bush administration and Congress must answer in coming months as they seek to respond to a chorus of complaints across the country from developers, farmers, oil and gas interests and individual landowners such as Adamski.

The controversy affects millions of acres of low-lying lands from Alaska to the Gulf Coast.

Nowhere has the outcry been stronger than in Maryland, where a new 1989 federal manual for identifying wetlands expanded the area regulated from about 275,000 acres to well over 1 million acres, including about 40 percent of the Eastern Shore.

Permits were suddenly being required to build on land that scarcely resembled a bog or marsh, including lots in long-established communities such as the sprawling Ocean Pines retirement and vacation development near Ocean City. Landowners complained of long delays and difficulty getting permits, and of costly requirements to replace or "mitigate" the wetlands being built upon.

Federal environmental officials have been backpedaling in the face of the furor, seeking to "clarify" and narrow the scope of the controversial regulations. Leading the retrenchment has been Environmental Protection Agency Administrator William K. Reilly, who has said the administration never intended to regulate such vast expanses of the Shore and other regions of the country.

Last year the corps, which is responsible for issuing permits to fill or dredge wetlands, decided to exempt most wetlands that have been farmed since December 1985. That freed more than 300,000 acres of non-tidal wetlands in Maryland from regulation.

The administration's latest move is a new wetlands identification manual, to be released soon, tightening the conditions land would be protected from disturbance.

Under the new guidelines, for instance, land would have to be waterlogged for more than two weeks at a time to be considered a wetland, more than twice the period under current rules. The 100-page manual also limits the variety of plants that biologists must find growing on the site.

The guidelines, under review by the White House Office of Management and Budget, already are stirring controversy. Environmentalists complain the new manual subverts science to weaken wetlands protections and they cite protests from dissenting biologists at EPA and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Non-tidal wetlands help protect streams by filtering nutrients and other pollutants out of rainfall runoff and groundwater. They also help control flooding and provide food and shelter for wildlife.

"We know that many drier sites -- irregularly flooded sites, in particular -- provide very important nutrient removal functions," says Curtis Bohlen, a wetlands biologist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. About one-third of the endangered plants in the country grow in wetlands, mainly non-tidal ones, he adds.

More than half the wetlands that existed when European settlers landed in America have been destroyed by development, which is why state and federal officials have pledged "no net loss" of the remaining resource.

While small, isolated wetlands -- or those already disturbed by development, such as those in Richard Adamski's subdivision -- may not provide as much environmental protection as large pristine marshes, Bohlen insists that "collectively, the impacts of not regulating them can be quite severe for the bay."

However, critics of the current policy contend that environmental protection is infringing on private property rights. They say the new federal wetlands manual does not go far enough in rolling back regulation. They want Congress to overhaul the wetlands protections written into the Clean Water Act.

"Even if a revised manual made the wetlands wet again, we must have a law. We must be protected from these bureaucrats," says Margaret Ann Reigle, chairman of the Fairness to Land Owners Committee in Cambridge, which claims 8,500 members in 19 states.

Several bills to revise federal wetlands law have been drafted, but the legislation with the broadest support so far is a measure introduced by Rep. James A. Hayes, D-La., which has collected about 130 cosponsors.

The Hayes bill would tighten the definition of wetlands, classify them according to their environmental and economic value and compensate owners whose property is barred from development. However, wetlands deemed of little ecological value could be altered without a federal permit.

Bohlen, the bay foundation biologist, concedes that the current regulatory system hasn't worked very well. But he contends that more public information and education is needed, rather than weakening wetlands protections. Areas that tend to become marshy are not really very good to build in in the first place, he noted.

"Clearly there are circumstances where people are put into hardships," he said. "We need to find mechanisms to avoid the hardships without giving away the farm, without unduly damaing the water quality of the bay."

No Maryland legislators have signed onto the Hayes bill. Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, R-1st, whose district has most of the state's wetlands, says he is still studying the issue and has not decided yet whether to support any bill, or whether to draw up his own.

Gilchrest is critical of the Army engineers' wetlands permit process, calling it "very very complicated" and costly for individual landowners to pursue. But he questions the Bush administration's move to ease red tape by changing the rules for identifying wetlands.

"You have a manual based on scientific evidence," Gilchrest said. "Why change the manual. . . to meet the whims of a real estate developer or someone who wants to build a house?"

Gilchrest says he is impressed by what he has learned so far about Maryland's state program for protecting non-tidal wetlands, which took over most of the permit decisions from the corps six months ago. State officials are helping landowners DTC build "creatively," he said, by avoiding or minimizing wetlands destruction.

Under the state law, a landowner may destroy up to 5,000 square feet, about one-tenth of an acre, of wetlands to build a home without being required to replace, or "mitigate," the lost wetlands.

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