Prince George's legislator cited in wetlands violation

December 20, 1992|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,Staff Writer

A Prince George's County legislator has been cited by federal and state regulators for illegally building a road through wetlands on property he owns in Charles County. It is his second offense in three years, say federal officials.

Del. Richard A. Palumbo, D-Prince George's, was ordered last month by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Maryland Department of Natural Resources to halt work on a road into an undeveloped 114-acre tract he owns near Port Tobacco, officials said.

Mr. Palumbo did not have a permit to clear the forested freshwater wetlands through which the road runs, said Robert L. Zepp, assistant supervisor of the Annapolis field office of the wildlife service.

Landowners are required to get federal or state permits, or both, before disturbing wetlands.

Once viewed as mosquito-riddled nuisances and routinely drained or filled, freshwater marshes, bogs and swamps are now protected by state and federal law. The marshes sustain waterfowl and many rare plants and animals, and act as natural )) sponges, preventing floods and soaking up pollutants.

Landowners are routinely permitted to fill up to an acre of wetlands to build driveways and roads onto their property. Since being ordered to stop work, Mr. Palumbo has applied for a permit authorizing what has already been done.

The state, which shares responsibility for regulating wetlands with three federal agencies, is reviewing Mr. Palumbo's request, said Charles Wheeler, deputy water resources director.

But the case may test the cooperation of federal and state agencies in enforcing wetlands laws. The state does issue permits after the fact, if landowners can show that the disturbance would have been eligible for approval in the first place.

But federal officials say Mr. Palumbo could be denied a permit in this case -- and may also face civil or criminal penalties -- because he was cited for a wetlands violation on the same property three years ago.

"We don't make a practice of rewarding violators," said Sandy Mues, a biologist with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which enforces federal wetlands laws along with the wildlife service and the Environmental Protection Agency.

Mr. Palumbo, a lawyer who lives in Hyattsville, did not return a reporter's telephone calls. A 13-year veteran of the General Assembly, he voted in 1989 for a bill that became law authorizing Maryland to regulate activities in freshwater or non-tidal wetlands. That law requires landowners to get state permits before filling, draining or excavating wetlands.

In his application for an after-the-fact permit, Mr. Palumbo wrote that he built the road to provide access to a farm on the property. An existing driveway from a neighbor's property had been washed out, he said.

About 16,000 square feet -- or more than a third of an acre -- of wetlands were bulldozed, carving a roadway 50 feet wide and 320 feet long into the property, according to his permit application.

The land, which is adjacent to Chapel Point State Park, is undeveloped and has not been subdivided for residential development, according to the Charles County planning office. The county's zoning law would allow construction of one home on every 3 acres of buildable land on the 114-acre tract.

Mr. Palumbo also contended in his application that he did not know he needed a wetlands permit to build the road.

But Harold Clingerman, a spokesman for the Corps of Engineers' Baltimore District office, contended that Mr. Palumbo should have known because of his previous citation.

In February 1989, the corps' Baltimore District office wrote Mr. Palumbo a letter telling him to halt work on a 15-foot-wide road he was building on the same property because it crossed wetlands along Wills Branch, a tributary of the Port Tobacco River. That river flows into the Potomac River, a major tributary of the Chesapeake Bay.

The corps never issued Mr. Palumbo a permit for the wetlands he had filled, but took no further enforcement action.

"Our interest was in working with the state to bring the property into compliance," said Ms. Mues.

The state also had cited Mr. Palumbo in late 1988 for building the road in a flood plain and for crossing a stream without a required state permit, state and federal officials said.

The state later gave Mr. Palumbo permission, without requiring him to do anything else or to pay any penalty.

"That's not unusual. It happens a lot. We have an after-the-fact permit process," said Meredith Gibbs, an assistant attorney general. She said that state officials have not decided whether to seek to fine Mr. Palumbo in the latest case. Up to $10,000 in civil or criminal penalties can be levied for violations.

The laws and regulations governing freshwater wetlands are complex and controversial. Thus, when someone violates them apparently unknowingly, state and federal officials usually demand only that the offender restore the damaged wetlands or create new ones elsewhere.

Nearly three-fourths of Maryland's tidal and freshwater wetlands have been lost to farming and development in the last 200 years, according to federal statistics.

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