County Misses Deadline For Establishing Wetlands Unit Stringent State Program Will Take Effect By Default To Protect Environmentally Sensitive Areas

December 26, 1990|By Adam Sachs | Adam Sachs,Staff writer

The county won't have a non-tidal wetlands program to assist developers by Tuesday, the date a new state law imposes tighter restrictions on construction in the environmentally critical areas.

Under the Non-tidal Wetlands Protection Act, Maryland's subdivisions have the right to assume control of the program from the state. A county program ideally would allow more direct and quicker assistance to builders in delineating wetlands, planning mitigation measures, and filling out applications.

Carroll would like to take over the program, but has delayed implementation until 1992 at the earliest, said James E. Slater, county natural resource protection director.

Slater said he had intended to have a non-tidal wetlands unit by July 1991, but the county's recent budget problems -- a deficit of about $3 million is projected -- makes that goal unlikely.

"To even conceive of taking it over now would be somewhat irresponsible," he said.

Non-tidal wetlands are freshwater woodlands, swamps, marshes, bogs and other areas that support fish, wildlife and plant habitats. They act as natural filters, reducing soil erosion and removing nutrients and toxic pollutants before they reach surface waters. Protection of non-tidal wetlands is considered crucial to the productivity and environmental quality of the Chesapeake Bay.

Maps serve as a guideline, but non-tidal wetlands can be defined only through field inspections. Developers must comply with federal laws that protect non-tidal wetlands. The laws require builders to identify wetlands and receive a permit before proceeding with construction.

But those laws have not always been enforced strictly and omit regulation of some activities deemed crucial by the state, said Charles Wheeler, director of Maryland's Wetlands and Waterways Program. The federal laws also are unclear how to mitigate damage to wetlands, he said. To compensate, the state adopted its own, stricter permitting process, which can be assumed by counties.

The state law, pushed by environmentalists and the governor, was debated hotly during the last two legislative sessions. Many land owners, developers, Realtors, bankers and county officials objected to the law and its timetable, saying it could harm equity in the land and disrupt projects planned for years.

Slater said the county can help builders with their projects. Five staff members are trained to identify wetlands for land acquisition and construction projects, he said.

He added that he wants to see how the state program, which has generated much confusion, is run before advising the county commissioners to set up a local program.

"The way it's written now, there wouldn't be a lot of difference because the state and federal agencies would be looking over our shoulders, even duplicating our efforts, to make sure we know what we're doing," he said.

A county non-tidal wetlands program could require a staff of up to five workers to provide field inspection, application review, and consultation and planning services, he said. Slater said he is considering contracting with consultants instead of hiring a full-time staff. Consultants' costs would be passed on to developers.

The program would be designed so administration costs would be paid through service fees by developers seeking permits to build in wetlands or otherwise alter the terrain, said Slater. County officials estimated a program could cost $250,000 or more annually.

The county has assumed delegation of similar state programs, such as storm water management and erosion control.

Slater said he's concerned the state, experiencing its own financial problems and in the midst of a hiring freeze, might not have adequate staff to run the program. But Wheeler said the state program is staffed fully and ready to handle and process applications. State law says applications must be processed in 45 days.

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