Md. to ease wetland rules for farmland

October 02, 1990|By Phillip Davis

State regulations for some wetlands on farm property will be eased next year, after changes in federal policy, Torrey C. Brown, secretary of natural resources, said yesterday.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said last week that it would no longer regulate certain wetlands that had been farmed before December 1985. That action freed many landowners here and around the country of the need to obtain special permits from the corps to develop their land in accordance with federal law on clean water.

Non-tidal wetlands are a critical filter between the mainland -- with its pollution -- and the waters of the Chesapeake Bay.

But some of these wetlands are of "minimal" ecological value, according to the corps, because they are dry much of the year and because years of farming have so altered them they are wetlands in name only.

Dr. Brown said he agreed with the corps' action.

"We know the difference between a farmed field and a marsh," he said. "We are going to coordinate our program to fit in with the federal action. This will rationalize the regulations for everyone."

Dr. Brown said he met with Gov. William Donald Schaefer yesterday to determine how the state would treat these newly deregulated areas.

Eastern Shore farmers will benefit from the state and federal actions, because under a 2-year-old federal definition of wetland, up to 700,000 acres of Shore farmland had been declared off-limits to development without a difficult-to-obtain federal permit.

While not changing the definition, the corps' action last week gave farmers some reprieve.

"It should free up a lot of farmers from worrying about what they can do with their land," said Mark Powell, assistant editor of the Delmarva Farmer, an agricultural weekly. "This will give farmers about 85 percent of what they want."

Farmers would be most satisfied if the Congress gave farms an exemption in the Clean Water Act, the law governing wetlands protection, he said.

The Izaak Walton League of America criticized the deregulation yesterday and said the action could result in the permanent loss of wetlands up and down the bay.

Linda Winter, the group's Chesapeake Bay coordinator, expressed the same fear but acknowledged that it would be difficult to prove the specific impact that ending regulation of farmed wetlands would have on the bay.

"The bay is just too complex for that kind of cause-and-effect relationship," she said.

Dr. Brown insisted that Maryland's genuine wetlands would still be protected under the state's pioneering wetlands protection act that goes into effect Jan. 1.

"We had never contemplated regulating 1 million acres under this law. Now we're going to go back to protecting what the law had originally been written for," he said.

He said Governor Schaefer made a commitment yesterday to fund 20 extra positions for the department to enforce the wetlands protection law, despite a hiring freeze brought on by a projected budget deficit.

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