Development possible as wetlands ebb Change in definition opens up sites in Md.

August 24, 1991|By Liz Bowie

Two days ago, Richard Adamski owned a small parcel of land in an Eastern Shore backwater that was a wetland.

Today, it probably isn't anymore.

The change was no fluke of nature but a simple stroke of the pe that will likely allow the 53-year-old retired state trooper to build a three-bedroom rancher without having to pay $2,790 into a fund to create wetland elsewhere.

Congress directed the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers this wee to stop using the current set of rules to decide whether a site is a wetland and whether it can be developed. The change is likely to last about six months, the length of time it will take the federal government to field-test and get comments on yet another set of wetlands regulations proposed several weeks ago.

But even the temporary change will have broad implications fo about 300,000 acres in Maryland once considered wetlands that will now be opened to a flurry of development by people eager to build while the rules are more lenient.

Wetlands are the marshes, bogs, prairie potholes and squishy woodlands that filter pollutants before they reach bays and rivers, provide habitat for birds and wildlife and act as nursery grounds for fish.

And this week's action leaves Maryland officials in a quandary. A whole layer of state wetlands laws is based on a 1989 federal definition of a wetland that is no longer valid.

Landowners who fought that 1989 definition are delighted it ha been put to rest. "They have finally shut down an illegitimate document," said Margaret Ann Reigle, chairman of the Fairness to Landowners Committee, a Cambridge-based group opposed to the 1989 regulations. The association believes that the 1989 definition was far too inclusive, taking in land they say is bone-dry most of the year.

But environmentalists, who have already been angered by what they believe is Mr. Bush's retreat on his promise to protect wetlands, are infuriated.

"I think this is very significant," said William C. Baker, president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. "It tells me the federal government is in a state of confusion, perhaps even chaos, as to what a wetland is."

For Mr. Adamski, the new definition of a wetland means that developing his three-quarter acre will cost less. When he applied to the corps for a permit to build his house, he was told he could get one, but it would be subject to restrictions. He would either have to create a wetland on a quarter-acre elsewhere or he could contribute $2,790 to a fund to build new wetland.

But if his land is no longer a wetland -- as his consultant believes -- then "it will exempt me from all of this bureaucratic red tape," he said. In addition, he won't have to pay money into the fund. Still, after a year of haggling with the corps over a permit, Mr. Adamski thinks it is too early to celebrate. "Until they tell me in black and white I am not under their jurisdiction, I won't be throwing a party."

The change in the definition could affect about 175 people now applying for permits to build in non-tidal or freshwater wetland in Maryland, according to Tom Filip, the corps' assistant chief for the regulatory branch in Baltimore.

Since the rules have changed midway through the process, they will be able to reapply using guidelines developed in 1987 that were in effect until 1989.

Whether those regulations are less stringent than the set proposed earlier this month by the president is still unclear. However, those landowners concerned about whether they will be able to develop would be likely to see a window of opportunity to apply under more lenient rules.

The debate over the definition of a wetland has become a national issue for environmental groups, who see the administration of President Bush -- who had promised no net loss of wetlands -- backing away from the 1989 manual that had the effect of doubling the number of acres classified as wetlands.

Before March 1989 in Maryland, there were believed to be about 275,000 acres of wetland. Under the 1989 definition, the estimate grew to between 660,000 and 1.2 million acres.

The increase produced an outcry from farmers, developers and the oil industry, and the Bush administration is now proposing to substantially narrow the definition.

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