Builder gets jail term for marsh filling Record fines total $4 million against developer, companies

Appeal is planned

Maryland case called landmark win in fight to preserve wetlands

June 18, 1996|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,SUN STAFF

GREENBELT -- In a case of national significance, a federal judge yesterday sentenced multimillionaire real estate developer James J. Wilson to 21 months in prison and fined him $1 million for illegally filling wetlands in Charles County.

U.S. District Judge Alexander Williams Jr. also levied a record $3 million in fines against the two development companies that Wilson controlled. He also ordered them to restore 50 acres of the wetlands they were convicted of filling without seeking required federal permits.

Wilson, 63, chairman of Interstate General Co., and the two firms -- IGC and St. Charles Associates, a subsidiary -- were found guilty Feb. 29 by a federal jury of illegally filling wetlands from 1988 to 1993.

The fines are the largest ever imposed against a business convicted of harming wetlands, which federal prosecutors said they hoped would send a message to developers nationwide about the importance of safeguarding such environmentally sensitive areas.

"The wetlands such as those destroyed here are very critical to the continued health of the Potomac River watershed and the Chesapeake Bay," said Maryland U.S. Attorney Lynne A. Battaglia, who attended the daylong sentencing hearing.

Wilson and IGC maintained their innocence after sentencing. John E. Hans, chief financial officer, said company officials "strongly believe Mr. Wilson and the company will be vindicated on appeal."

Hans said the company still believed the government was wrong to claim that the lands in question were federally protected wetlands.

Wilson, who lives in Middleburg, Va., sat rigidly as the judge imposed the sentence. Before he was sentenced, he tearfully appealed for the judge to consider the good he had tried to do in building St. Charles, a 9,100-acre, Columbia-style planned community near Waldorf.

"It is absolutely devastating for me to stand before you and know I have been convicted of a crime which I believe I didn't do," Wilson said.

Prosecutors had sought a three-to-five-year prison term for Wilson and a $5.5 million fine against the companies.

But defense attorneys argued for lenience, warning that the development firms lacked cash and could be pushed into bankruptcy if made to pay multimillion-dollar fines.

Company officials and accountants testified that IGC had only about $200,000 on hand.

An accountant with Arthur Anderson testified that he had doubts about the company's continued survival because it was continually struggling to pay off creditors.

Wilson was president and chief executive officer of IGC from 1988 through 1993, when the government accused his firms of illegally filling 70 acres in four tracts around St. Charles. A BJ's Wholesale Club was built on one site, while roads and houses were built in other wetlands.

The judge rejected the companies' offer to set aside 475 acres in another part of the county, instead ordering them to follow a federal wetlands restoration plan. That plan, which forces the company to set aside a 100-acre commercial tract, could cost $1 million to $2 million.

The judge gave the companies two years to pay their fines. But he rejected pleas to let Wilson remain free on bail pending his appeal. Wilson is scheduled to report to prison in Cumberland in two months.

Pub Date: 6/18/96

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