The Schaefer administration is claiming victory over doubters after the first full year of its efforts to control development affecting Maryland's inland bogs and marshes.
The governor fought for and won a law regulating use of non-tidal wetlands in the 1989 General Assembly despite opposition from lawmakers and landowners. They feared the permit system would create a tangle of bureaucracy and infringe on their rights to develop their property.
Natural resources officials said yesterday the new "streamlined" permit system enabled them to head off destruction of 8.4 acres of non-tidal wetlands during 1991 -- 42 percent of the 19.7 acres that applicants had targeted for development.
Non-tidal wetlands, once regarded as nuisances to be filled in, are now seen as natural "sponges" that soak up pollutants headed for the Chesapeake Bay, help control flooding and provide food and shelter for plants and animals.
State environmental officials said most wetlands spared from destruction were saved by helping applicants redesign projects to minimize damage to sensitive acreage.
Officials said only one landowner, on the lower Eastern Shore, was denied a permit to carry out proposed development after he refused to move his project to higher ground on the same site.
Permits were issued that doomed 10.7 acres last year, but officials said those losses were offset by agreements for the creation or restoration of 12.7 acres of non-tidal wetlands elsewhere, for a net gain of two acres.
Another 48.7 acres of non-tidal wetlands were to be created or restored across the state by activities that fell outside the regulatory process, according to the Department of Natural Resources.
"We showed that we can protect the wetlands without creating a big headache for the landowners," said Gov. William Donald Schaefer.
Some people representing the building in dustry say they're still frustrated with the system, however.
Milt McCarthy, a wetlands consultant to builders and local governments, asked, "Where's the big savings in time or money? I don't see it."
He said it still takes four to six months to resolve an application unless the proposal is "very small. . . . It's certainly increased the costs of doing business."
Maryland's Non-tidal Wetlands Program mandates "no net loss" of wetlands and sets a goal for a net gain. Applicants must replace permitted wetland losses greater than 5,000 square feet. The state replaces smaller losses. The new wetlands can be adjacent to developed acreage or established elsewhere.
The program also makes federal money available to those who want to restore wetlands on their property, such as a farmer who decides to return a waterlogged field to its natural state.
Officials say the permit system combines, simplifies and computerizes what landowners complained has been a frustrating maze of state and federal application procedures.
The process requires that property owners get a response within 45 days.
State officials said all deadlines were met.
"I'm personally surprised that government can work this well," said Natural Resources Secretary Torrey C. Brown.
Mr. McCarthy, however, said the law gives DNR officials 45 days to determine whether the application is complete. If it isn't, "you're back to square one," he said. If it is complete, it can still take months for the agencies involved to finish their review.
"I would like to see the program more streamlined" to resolve the application fully within 45 days, Mr. McCarthy said. "I think it's got some value, but I think there are way too many agencies involved."
Of the 996 non-tidal wetlands permit applications resolved in 1991, 559 were found to be exempt, or were altered so that they became exempt from the permit process. More than 400 of those were exempted because the projects had minimal, or no impact on wetlands.
Another 125 applications were withdrawn.
Secretary Brown said he believed the "one-stop-shopping" permit procedure has made believers out of former critics.
But the state's efforts have not won over Margaret Ann Reigle, chairman of the Fairness to Landowners Committee based in Dorchester County.
"I am still hearing an enormous number of complaints from people," she said. Eastern Shore landowners are still upset about delays and restrictions on using their property.
Ms. Reigle accused the state Department of the Environment of dragging its feet in deciding whether proposals will harm water quality in nearby streams.
Maryland farmers are still upset with the federal definition of wetlands, which was expanded in 1989 to encompass a lot of land that was only occasionally marshy, said Norman Astle, a spokesman for the Maryland Farm Bureau. The state has adopted the federal definition.
Environmentalists, however, are generally pleased. "It seems like when we send people to them [state wetlands officials], they get what they need," said Curtis Bohlen, wetlands specialist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.
Secretary Brown said the program works so well that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers may expand it to include tidal wetlands, delegating authority now held by the corps to the state .