Nearly 75 percent of the 1 million acres of non-tidal wetlands in Maryland may no longer need special permits for development, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced yesterday in an advisory letter that gratified Eastern Shore landowners and enraged environmentalists.
The corps characterized its decision as one allowing regulators to concentrate efforts on the most vital wetlands, which serve as the buffer between the land and its pollutants and the Chesapeake Bay. In his 1988 campaign, President Bush pledged that there would be "no net loss of wetlands" under his administration.
Most of the Maryland acreage released from the regulations yesterday had only been considered non-tidal wetlands since January 1989, when the corps and other agencies adopted a stringent new definition of wetlands.
That added more than 600,000 acres of land along the Chesapeake Bay that had been traditionally farmed or otherwise developed on top of Maryland's earlier inventory of about 275,000 acres of normal marshy wetlands.
As a result, as much as half of some Lower Shore counties, such as Dorchester, Somerset, Wicomico and Worcester, suddenly were considered non-tidal wetlands.
Landowners found they had to get the Corps of Engineers' approval for any development that affected their land and were furious.
Environmentalists applauded the stricter definition as a necessary part of protecting the bay's ecology from further degradation. Environmentalists and bay scientists say the non-tidal wetlands perform a variety of functions ranging from flood control to safeguarding the health of the Chesapeake Bay by filtering pollutants, sediments and nutrients.
But yesterday, the corps in large measure reversed itself.
If a piece of property has been farmed since Dec. 23, 1985, it will no longer need to get Corps of Engineers wetlands permits for development, the advisory stated.
Such converted wetlands "no longer exhibit important wetlands values" and only minimally meet the technical definition of the term.
The action, Maj. Patrick J. Kelly of the corps said in the advisory, "will allow the corps to focus its limited regulatory resources on the nation's truly important and significant aquatic resources."
More than 700,000 acres could be affected by the corps ruling, estimated John R. Griffin, the deputy secretary of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.
"I think we have to reserve judgment until we've had a chance to read it," he said.
The corps and other federal agencies, such as the Environmental Protection Agency, had been struggling for most of this year to come up with a "general permit" to clarify exactly what could be done to non-tidal wetlands, and that would have given much authority back to the state of Maryland.
EPA regional administrator Edwin Erickson said yesterday, "This may sit very nicely in our efforts to work with Maryland in the regulation of non-tidal wetlands. It may in some ways simplify the situation."
A flood of permit requests swamped the corps after the definition change was announced in 1989 and brought development on the Eastern Shore nearly to a halt, according to both corps officials and upset landowners.
"Our workload suddenly increased, while our staff did not," said Howard Clingerman, a spokesman for the corps. So far this year, the corps has acted on only seven of 90 permit applications submitted to it.
"It's a big relief; it is a big help," said Margaret Ann Reigle, founder and chairman of the 6,000-member Fairness to Landowners Committee, after the corps announced its decision yesterday. "It goes a long way to putting a little bit of sense back into [the regulations]."
Still, Ms. Reigle said, the announcement would not help those landowners with wooded parcels, and she said there was still a major problem with the federal wetlands manual that includes naturally wet soil as a criterion for land to be classified a non-tidal wetland.
"We're very disturbed by the prospect of that," said Jim Robertson, director of the Maryland Environmental Defense Program for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. "That represents potentially the vast majority of wetlands."
During the 1989 General Assembly, Maryland adopted stringent wetlands regulations of its own, and it was unclear yesterday how the corps action would affect the state's regulation of wetlands.
The divisive issue also has played a large role in this year's congressional election in the 1st District.
Representative Roy P. Dyson, D-Md.-1st, has called for an easing of the restrictions and introduced a bill this spring that would divide non-tidal wetlands into five categories, and require permits for small parcels within the two lowest wetlands classifications.
Mr. Dyson said he was "gratified" by the corps decision. "Genuine wetlands need and deserve federal protection, but the farms that the federal government seized regulatory control over last year aren't wetlands," the congressman said.