Land-use battles pivot on mushy wetland definition

August 23, 1991|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,Evening Sun Staff

SOLOMONS -- Cicadas sing in the trees overhead. The carpet of brown leaves under foot is spongy, still damp from the morning's rain. Barely seen through the woods, traffic whooshes by in the distance on Solomons Island Road.

"We're standing in the war zone," says Milt McCarthy. "This is where the battles are being fought."

These low-lying woods in southern Calvert County are an unlikely battleground. But they are caught up in a bitter struggle over government wetland protection policies that could affect tens of thousands of acres in Maryland and millions of acres nationwide.

Targeted two years ago for development as a shopping center, this 11-acre site is still forest and field. The original developer was forced to sell out after more than half the tract was declared non-tidal wetland, says McCarthy, a private wetland consultant from Upper Marlboro.

Federal and state law places severe development restrictions on wetlands because of their value as natural flood controls, water purifiers and homes to fish and aquatic wildlife.

Now, however, the Bush administration has proposed new federal guidelines for identifying wetlands that may ease development restrictions on marginally marshy land such as this.

The move comes in response to a backlash that has been growing in Maryland and elsewhere the past two years, since the federal government adopted more liberal wetland identification rules.

Those rules extended development restrictions to drier lands that had never been considered wetlands before, including farm fields that had been tilled for generations and "wet woods" such as these north of Solomons.

The new guidelines, published last week, are intended to scale DTC back the regulatory reach of the government while still shielding "productive" wetlands, according to officials of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which spearheaded the move.

Federal and state environmental officials say they won't be able to assess the impact of the new guidelines in Maryland until they have studied and tested them on various sites. Those field tests began this week.

But initial reactions to the guidelines indicate they will do little to settle the debate between environmentalists and landholders over what is -- or ought to be -- protected as wetlands.

McCarthy and two other private wetland consultants canvassed by The Evening Sun say the new federal guidelines, if adopted exactly as proposed, could reduce substantially the amount of land in the state that is protected as non-tidal wetlands.

But they also contend that the new guidelines, contained in a 112-page manual, could add significantly to the costs and delays landowners now experience in trying to get government go-ahead to develop their property.

"I can see it costing people a lot more to get [wetland] delineations done with this new manual," says David Hardin, a partner in Environmental Resources Inc., a wetland consulting firm based in Salisbury.

"Landowners may be happier in the short term" because of the regulatory rollback, says Henry Leskinen, an ecologist with Envirens Inc., a Timonium wetland consulting firm. "But once we get out in the field, they may find it's just as big a headache as before."

Under current rules, Maryland has anywhere from 360,000 acres to 800,000 acres of non-tidal wetlands, where property owners are required to get federal and state permits before they can disturb the land. McCarthy says he thinks the new guidelines may scale back the area classified as non-tidal wetlands to what it was before 1989, when it was estimated at 275,000 acres.

The new guidelines tighten two of three criteria for defining what is a wetland: water, vegetation and soils.

They require that the land be under water for at least 15 straight days or saturated to the surface for 21 or more days during the growing season from early spring through late fall.

Current guidelines cover lands where water gets within 18 inches of the surface for as few as seven straight days.

The proposal also would require the presence of more plants and trees that grow only in water-saturated soils.

Under the proposed guidelines, the wetlands on the proposed shopping center near Solomons could shrink to three acres from about six, according to McCarthy. Although the soils at the site are "hydric," indicating they are saturated with water at some point during the year, the bushes and trees growing there are more typical of an upland woods.

At another site inspected on the Eastern Shore, the consultants estimated that 90 percent of what is now classified as wetlands would be deregulated under the new guidelines. The wooded two-acre site on U.S. 50 in Easton is next to a Comfort Inn motel, which wants to expand.

The consultants, who are paid by developers and landowners to identify wetland sites, contend that woodlands such as these, which may be flooded or merely marshy during the winter and early spring, should not be protected.

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