Cashing in on wetland restoration 'Banks' spur creation of marshes and offer developers a profit

June 23, 1998|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,SUN STAFF

As Douglas R. Kopeck sees it, there's money to be made in selling swampland.

The landscape architect from Westminster is testing that theory on an old dairy farm in western Howard County. Kopeck has designed Maryland's first commercial wetland "bank," where he is in the process of converting a streamside pasture into marsh.

His client, a Washington-area development firm, plans to sell off part of the low-lying parcel to other developers legally required to replace boggy spots they have bulldozed elsewhere to build homes, roads and shopping malls.

"Hopefully, in a couple years, you won't be able to tell the man-made from the natural wetlands," Kopeck said as he surveyed the reedy depression carved out of a field along the Middle Patuxent River.

Wetland banking, as the practice is known, is the latest wrinkle in a relatively young industry of creating or restoring marshland. It is rapidly spreading, as the market-oriented approach to environmental protection is embraced by developers, highway builders and politicians. More than 100 marsh "banks" have been established nationwide, and 110 are in the works, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

"It's good for developers and the environment," contends Robert D. Sokolove, managing partner of U.S. Wetlands, a Bethesda-based firm specializing in wetland banking.

Environmentalists are skeptical, pointing out that there has been little research done to document the ecological benefits. Ignoring such concerns, Congress recently sided with banks' powerful supporters and decreed they should be used to replace wetlands bulldozed for federally funded highway construction projects.

Most banks were set up by a state highway agency or a utility to compensate for their own building. In the past few years, about 30 commercial banks have sprung up to sell created or restored wetlands to any willing buyer.

"The old saw that you can't mix money and the environment is just dead wrong," says Sokolove, whose firm has four projects and up to 25 more under consideration, though none in Maryland. "The impacts [on wetlands] are money-driven, and the solutions are money-driven."

Developers, who carp at the cost and complexity of wetlands replacement, called mitigation, often try to do it as cheaply as possible. That usually shows, with many of the man-made marshes lacking the wild quality of the originals. The isolated parcels often wind up as trash-strewn ponds virtually surrounded by concrete.

"Mitigation up until now has been pretty much a failure," Sokolove said. "The wrong people were building wetlands in the wrong places with the wrong techniques."

To proponents, wetland mitigation banks represent a "win-win" situation. Simply by buying "credits" from a bank, developers get out from under onerous regulations. A marsh created as a bank typically is bigger and better than what developers put back piecemeal, they say.

Depending on the location, bankers sell "credits" in their projects for $50,000 to $100,000 or more per acre.

At such prices, it's no wonder wetland banking is attracting entrepreneurs. The biggest project envisioned so far is a 10,000-acre proposal in the Great Dismal Swamp, which straddles the Virginia-North Carolina border. The goal is to convert old farmland to restore the fabled swamp, now only a fraction as large as it was when European colonists began draining it.

"Mitigation banking is a concept whose time has come," says Donald Carr, Washington lawyer for the project. Even so, Carr says, "Many of them are ill-conceived and unlikely to succeed -- and too thinly capitalized."

Florida, with its burgeoning development and vast marshland, is a hotbed for wetland banking -- and controversy.

"Banking is a wonderful solution to failed policies," says Lewis J. Lautin, chief executive officer of Florida Wetlandsbank, a pioneer in the industry. Lautin's firm has sold out its first bank, a 400-acre former farm near Fort Lauderdale, and is developing another on 2,775 acres on the Gulf coast.

But Sierra Club activist Linda Bremer contends that some fast-buck developers have tried to cut corners. She worries that regulators may relax requirements under political pressure.

"If a private entrepreneurial bank can make a success of something, we should be proud," says Bremer. "On the other hand, we can't abandon regulations and enforcement [just] because they're private and entrepreneurial."

Wetland banking has yet to catch on in Maryland, which proponents blame on government red tape. With Gov. Parris N. Glendening committed to creating or restoring 60,000 acres of wetlands, the state is missing out on a chance to do it for little or no cost to taxpayers, they say.

"Of all the states, Maryland right now makes it extremely difficult for mitigation banking to succeed," says Sokolove.

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