Corps of Engineers rethinks state's authority on wetlands

November 14, 1990|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,Evening Sun Staff

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is considering narrowing the scope of a plan criticized by environmentalists that would let Maryland, rather than federal agencies, regulate most development in the state's freshwater or non-tidal wetlands.

Col. Frank R. Finch, Baltimore District engineer, said last night after a public hearing in Ellicott City that Army officials may revise the plan to limit the types of wetlands activities over which the state would have final say.

He also said the proposed "general permit" for regulating Maryland's non-tidal wetlands would be refined to ensure that any federal environmental agency can hold for further study a development project that the state might otherwise permit.

"What I'm hearing . . . is the public is generally happy with federal oversight," Finch said. "They don't want to see that diminished. What we have to come up with is a scheme where we can apply our oversight at the right time and right place."

Finch's assurances that the permit would be changed did little to appease environmentalists, who complained last night that the plan to turn much wetlands regulation over to the state was illegal and potentially harmful to Chesapeake Bay.

About a dozen environmentalists representing groups such as the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Izaak Walton League, Sierra Club and Earth First! urged the Army to scrap its plan to share wetlands regulation with the state, or at least to conduct a detailed environmental assessment of the plan's impact.

"The permit goes too far in serving the interests of those who seek to use wetlands, at the expense of protecting them," said Curtis Bohlen, staff scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. He charged that loopholes in the state and federal plan would leave many wetlands activities essentially unregulated.

Corps officials said last August they wanted to enhance protection of the state's wetlands by proposing a "general permit" that would let the state regulate most activities affecting less than 10 acres.

The plan, worked out in negotiation with state officials, is intended to eliminate overlap between federal regulations and Maryland's 1989 non-tidal wetlands protection law, which takes effect Jan. 1.

But Finch said the corps has received more than 100 letters, most of them opposing the permit. Many indicated they do not trust the state to protect Maryland's dwindling supply of non-tidal wetlands from destruction by development.

Vivian Newman, chairwoman of the Maryland Wetlands Committee, said the power-sharing arrangement proposed by the corps is "two steps back for one step forward." She contended that neither the state nor the corps was ready, with no clear-cut policy worked out yet on requiring that new wetlands be created or upgraded as "mitigation" for others that are lost to development.

About the only supporters of letting the state regulate most uses of non-tidal wetlands were developers and the state.

Larry Liebesman, a lawyer for the Maryland Builders Association, said giving the state the authority to issue wetlands permits should ease the "bureaucratic delay" in getting federal permits, which now can take several months or even years.

Liebesman urged the Army to give the state an even freer hand, particularly in permitting roads to be built across non-tidal wetlands.

A spokesman for the state, meanwhile, urged the corps to ignore the critics and stick by its plan.

Herbert Sachs, an assistant secretary of natural resources, said many environmentalists' objections were based on "misconceptions" of the plan. To delay now could result in continuing loss of wetlands and red tape snarling permit applications, he said.

"We are at a crucial point," Sachs said, noting that Maryland's program is scheduled to take effect soon. DNR has budgeted more than $2 million and 39 additional workers to inaugurate the new regulatory effort.

"We urge the corps to stay on course, issue the proposed general permit and to respect the state's leadership in management of its resources," Sachs said.

Another hearing is planned tomorrow night in Easton, where Eastern Shore property owners are expected to object to state involvement in regulating wetlands, a process they complain is already riddled with costly federal red tape and excessive delays.

Finch said corps officials plan to finish revising the permit after the Nov. 19 deadline for written public comments. He said he did not know if the changes would be major enough to force a new round of public comments and hearings, which could delay the permit's issuance until sometime next year.

Though the corps still hopes to issue a permit by Jan. 1, Finch said, "We're going to do what's right, not what's expedient."

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