A state hiring freeze has left Maryland's new program to regulate development in freshwater wetlands with only about half of its planned staff, prompting developers and environmentalists alike to worry that the controversial effort may get off to a bad start Jan. 1.
Twenty of the 39 positions budgeted for the state's non-tidal wetlands program remain to be filled, said David Burke, chief of non-tidal wetlands in the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.
"The people that are missing are . . . the people that on a day-to-day basis will be responsible for running the program," Burke said.
He said the staff to be hired would review applications from property owners for permits to build on, drain or fill non-tidal wetlands -- those inland freshwater marshes, bogs or "wet" areas that serve as natural sponges to soak up nutrients before they pollute Chesapeake Bay.
Top DNR officials have appealed to Budget Secretary Charles Benton to make an exception to the hiring freeze, and Deputy DNR Secretary John Griffin said yesterday he was "fairly confident" the non-tidal staff could be enlarged.
If the freeze is not lifted, Griffin said, staff in other DNR offices may have to be reassigned temporarily to help handle the non-tidal wetlands permit processing when the state regulatory program takes effect.
State regulations set a series of six- and eight-week deadlines for DNR to review and act on permit applications, and developers and environmentalists both questioned whether the department could handle the workload without more help.
"If the program's going to work, they've got to have the staff," said Kay Bienen of the Maryland Builders Association. She said builders have written Gov. William Donald Schaefer, urging lifting the freeze for the non-tidal wetlands effort.
Environmentalists fear valuable wetlands could be lost because there will not be enough staff to carefully review permit applications.
"When you look at how much work there is to do, it's absolutely essential that they have all the people they need," said Ann Powers, Chesapeake Bay Foundation vice president. "It would be really unfortunate if this program were hamstrung by this freeze, pretty short-sighted."
The Army Corps of Engineers, which regulates development activity in non-tidal wetlands, has proposed turning much of its permit-issuing authority over to the state. That move is welcomed by state officials and developers, who say the federal regulatory effort has been snarled in delays and red tape.
But environmentalists and other federal environmental officials, already concerned about the state's readiness and willingness to take over wetlands regulation, say the hiring freeze is another reason for the federal government not to yield permitting authority to the state.
"It just throws another element of doubt into the whole thing," said Robert Zepp, assistant director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service field office in Annapolis.
"I am very concerned about their ability to run the program," said Linda Winter of the Izaak Walton League.
David Carroll, the governor's Chesapeake Bay program coordinator, said the staffing level still is being evaluated, but the freeze does not jeopardize the state's ability to regulate non-tidal wetlands.
Carroll said the state plans to share responsibility for reviewing permit applications with federal environmental agencies.