Wetlands must be protected Jail for violator: Charles County developer's sentence underlines importance of law.

June 19, 1996

WETLANDS ARE CRITICAL to the health of people and the environment. That's why there are strict federal and state laws to prevent their destruction, regardless of who holds the deed.

Charles County developer James J. Wilson was sentenced to 21 months in prison this week for repeated and long-term violation of federal wetlands laws; he and his companies that are building a huge 9,100-acre planned community, St. Charles, were fined $4 million.

For five years, a federal jury found, Wilson ordered employees to illegally fill in 50 acres of these natural filters and flood barriers and wildlife habitat, despite the repeated warnings of his consultants that federal permits were required. He tenaciously fought federal efforts to apply the law, refusing to acknowledge their legitimacy on his property.

That may turn him into another martyr of the property rights absolutists, who seek to erase all vestige of government control over privately owned land. But to the larger citizenry, he is another example of a lawbreaker who looked to his wealth and economic power to flout required environmental protections.

The sentence by Judge Alexander Williams Jr. sends a strong message to the building community about the importance of wetlands, and obeying laws that protect them. He didn't levy a cost-of-doing-business fine and probation, or require the donation of marginal land in trade for leniency. Instead, he gave the defendant a harsh penalty for violating the wetlands law.

Wilson's punishment for four felony convictions is by no means a record of judicial severity. Pennsylvanian John Pozsgai got 33 months in prison for filling wetlands, Carey and Ocie Mills of Florida were sentenced to 21 months for wetlands destruction. John Paul Tudor II paid $4 million, four times Wilson's personal fine, to settle a misdemeanor tied to destroying wetlands on his Dorchester County estate.

The St. Charles developers warned that the heavy fines and wetlands restoration costs will lead to bankruptcy and land sales that will promote sprawl growth. But Judge Williams was not persuaded. Neither are we.

Disagreement may exist over legally defined wetlands; that is why there is a federal permit process to resolve the matter before destruction occurs. The days of builders filling now and fighting later over the law must come to an end, as the St. Charles case demonstrates.

Pub Date: 6/19/96

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