Wetland regulations are streamlined for property owners


WASHINGTON -- Homebuyers, owners and vacation property investors nationwide should be the prime beneficiaries of a new Clinton administration effort to cut environmental red tape for small-scale real estate holders.

Effective Sept. 25, the federal government overhauled the way it treats "Mom and Pop" real estate owners whose property contains -- or might contain -- what the federal government defines as a "wetland."

Even though the wooded home-site lot you bought is bone dry virtually the entire year and is miles away from the closest stream or shoreline, it still may meet the federal government's standards for a wetland because of its soil composition or plant life.

Hundreds of homebuyers and builders have discovered the far reach of those standards the hard way in the last five years. To build a driveway, add a deck, landscape a back yard or disturb their ground in any way, they've had to endure lengthy application proceedings and bureaucratic hassles. Some of them have turned into wetlands horror stories widely publicized by congressional hearings -- innocent consumers who were essentially stripped of the use of their property by regulatory overkill.

The good news from the nation's capital is that the government got the message. Under the Clinton administration's wetlands initiative, real estate owners whose home building or renovation projects affect no more than one-half acre of wetlands will enjoy a radically streamlined application procedure. Rather than waiting half a year or more to get their plans approved -- or turned down -- by regulators, now the onus will be on the regulators. They'll have a 30-day deadline to say yes or no. And if they don't respond within that period, property owners get an automatic approval.

Here's how the new procedure is supposed to work. Say you own a two-acre lot that you've always planned to build your retirement home on. When you submitted your building plans to the local zoning officials, they checked with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers about the possible existence of wetlands conditions on your parcel. The Corps has regulatory oversight on wetlands nationwide.

The answer back from the Corps was just what you didn't want to hear: Your property has about one-third acre of wetlands -- dry though it may appear. Under the old procedure, you would have had to file for what's known as an "individual permit" from the Corps of Engineers. That could involve preparation and submission of detailed drawings, reviews by multiple federal agencies, haggling over the location of almost anything in your plan, plus the real possibility that as the price of getting an approval, you'd have to "mitigate" -- buy additional property at your own expense and turn it into a wetland to replace the one-third acre your plan would disturb.

All of this could run on for months, a year, or more. And it could be expensive, monetarily and emotionally.

Now the new procedure: Prior to construction, you contact the nearest Corps office and request what's known as a "Nationwide Permit 29."

Unless there are unusual factors associated with your site, you'll almost certainly have an approval in hand in "about 15 or 16 days" after the Corps receives the application for the permit, according to Michael Davis, the Corps' regulatory chief. That's because the new rule sets a half-acre threshold, and you're well below it.

For more information, call the government's toll-free wetlands hot line: (800) 832-7828.

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