Wetlands rule sinks his dream home Catonsville man told he can't build on lot in Dorchester County.

June 25, 1991|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,Evening Sun Staff

Richard E. Adamski spent 24 years catching lawbreakers for the Maryland State Police.

Now the retired trooper says he is tempted to break the law himself "and let 'em lock me up."

The target of his frustration is the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which, Adamski claims, stands between him and his dream of building a retirement home on the Eastern Shore.

Adamski, who lives in Catonsville, bought a wooded lot, three-fourths of an acre, last year in a small subdivision in rural Dorchester County. He planned to put a three-bedroom rancher and do a little commercial crabbing.

But the Army told Adamski that the land, which he paid $15,500 for, is a federally protected non-tidal wetland. If he wants to build on it, the Army says, he must obtain a quarter-acre of cleared wetlands somewhere else and replant it with wetland-type shrubs and trees.

Adamski, who works now as a security guard in Columbia, says he cannot afford to comply with the Army's conditions, which were laid down more than a year after he bought the land.

"If I've got to go buy a quarter-acre, that's six or seven grand, and who the hell's going to sell you a quarter of an acre?" he asks angrily. "According to their regulations, my property is a body of water, and there isn't a drop of water on it."

How "wet" must a wetland be to deserve protection from development? And where will the line be drawn to achieve the national goal of "no net loss" of wetlands?

Those are the basic questions the Bush administration and Congress must answer in coming months as they seek to respond to a chorus of complaints across the country from developers, farmers, oil and gas interests and individual landowners such as Adamski.

The controversy affects millions of acres of low-lying lands from Alaska to the Gulf Coast.

Nowhere has the outcry been stronger than in Maryland, where a new 1989 federal manual for identifying wetlands expanded the area regulated from about 275,000 acres to well over 1 million acres, including about 40 percent of the Eastern Shore.

Permits were suddenly being required to build on land that scarcely resembled a bog or marsh, including lots in long-established communities such as the sprawling Ocean Pines retirement and vacation development near Ocean City. Landowners complained of long delays and difficulty getting permits, and of costly requirements to replace or "mitigate" the wetlands being built upon.

Federal environmental officials have been backpedaling in the face of the furor, seeking to "clarify" and narrow the scope of the controversial regulations. Leading the retrenchment has been Environmental Protection Agency Administrator William K. Reilly, who has said the administration never intended to regulate such vast expanses of the Shore and other regions of the country.

Last year the corps, which is responsible for issuing permits to fill or dredge wetlands, decided to exempt most wetlands that have been farmed since December 1985. That freed more than 300,000 acres of non-tidal wetlands in Maryland from regulation.

The administration's latest move is a new wetlands identification manual, to be released soon, tightening the conditions land would be protected from disturbance.

Under the new guidelines, for instance, land would have to be waterlogged for more than two weeks at a time to be considered a wetland, more than twice the period under current rules. The 100-page manual also limits the variety of plants that biologists must find growing on the site.

The guidelines, under review by the White House Office of Management and Budget, already are stirring controversy. Environmentalists complain the new manual subverts science to weaken wetlands protections and they cite protests from dissenting biologists at EPA and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Non-tidal wetlands help protect streams by filtering nutrients and other pollutants out of rainfall runoff and groundwater. They also help control flooding and provide food and shelter for wildlife.

"We know that many drier sites -- irregularly flooded sites, in particular -- provide very important nutrient removal functions," says Curtis Bohlen, a wetlands biologist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. About one-third of the endangered plants in the country grow in wetlands, mainly non-tidal ones, he adds.

More than half the wetlands that existed when European settlers landed in America have been destroyed by development, which is why state and federal officials have pledged "no net loss" of the remaining resource.

While small, isolated wetlands -- or those already disturbed by development, such as those in Richard Adamski's subdivision -- may not provide as much environmental protection as large pristine marshes, Bohlen insists that "collectively, the impacts of not regulating them can be quite severe for the bay."

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