For firm, a `win-win situation'

Improvements: Ecotone Inc. helps farmers make land environmentally sustainable, while giving developers ways to fulfill their obligations.

January 11, 2004|By Sarah Merkey | Sarah Merkey,SUN STAFF

For Jim Morris and Scott McGill of Jarrettsville, playing in the mud is serious business.

"I was born this way," Morris said. "This is what I've always done - go out and play in the mud."

McGill agrees with Morris: "I realized that you could make a living being a biologist playing in the mud in the stream."

Morris and McGill are co-owners of Ecotone Inc., a company that helps farmers in Harford County and neighboring areas improve parts of their land to make it more environmentally sustainable, while giving developers required to fund environmental efforts the chance to do so in places where it will make a difference.

"It's a lot more bang for the environmental buck," Morris said. "It's a win-win situation for everyone: Landowners get to fix their land. ... It's a good economical option for developers, and we get to have fun."

Maryland mitigation law requires developers to compensate for the loss of wetlands by improving, reconstructing or creating environmental sites. Another option is payment into the Nontidal Wetlands Compensation Fund or a similar program. The money goes toward state or local projects that improve streams and wetlands.

"As for funding sources, about 80 percent is tied to mitigation," Morris said. "We're cheaper than paying the fee. Paying the fee is sort of the last thing on the list of mitigation options." Restrictions aim to keep projects in the vicinity of the lost wetland, but there is some flexibility.

Most regulators "would rather see a really good project go in rather than planting 10 acres of trees," Morris said.

The Rahll farm in Fallston is the site of a major Ecotone project that was financed by the State Highway Administration as mitigation for the Bel Air bypass.

Before the restoration, the section of the East Branch Winters Run that ran through the open pasture was straight and had steep banks. A nightmare for environmentalists, the banks had a high risk for erosion and the water received full sunlight.

"We try to pick sites that are clear winners. It doesn't work when you're doing something that isn't a logical situation. You want a site that lends itself to being a wetland," Morris said.

"I had some wetlands I wasn't really using," said Edward Rahll, owner of the farm. Rahll viewed other Ecotone projects and decided to participate. "It looked kind of interesting," he said.

In February, the endeavor was put into motion. The restoration team used historical aerial photographs to re-create the meandering stream that had flowed through Rahll's farm. Geometrical measurements aided in creating a streambed.

In contrast to the uniformity of the original stream, Morris and McGill incorporated rifts and pools into the new stream. Rifts are the steep areas of a stream with fast-moving, shallow water. Pools consist of deep, slow-moving water. Rootwads, trees that are placed at the edge of the bank, were also added.

"It's a natural way to stabilize the banks. They used to use rocks; we're shooting for a more natural way," McGill said.

As with any project, there were obstacles.

"The biggest challenge was trying to re-create a natural channel and trying to anticipate what a flood will do," McGill said. The design team collaborated with a civil engineer to model the floodplain.

Completed in October, the stream is a better habitat for trout and will be able to increase the groundwater in its floodplain.

The project was costly: $135,000 for the design of the project and $615,000 for the construction.

"Stream restoration runs $100 to $200 a linear foot. Wetland restoration runs $30,000 to $45,000 an acre" - or 69 cents to $1.03 per square foot - McGill said, "sometimes cheaper depending on the area."

"We try to be a cost-effective solution," Morris said.

"Sometimes I have to ask myself if it's worth all the expense, reclaiming the wetlands," Rahll said.

"It was a good source of water for the cows. It can't be used for that now," Rahll said. "It's pretty desolate down there now. ... I expect there'll be geese and turtles."

Michael Gantt, owner of the Simons farm in Monkton, has also retired a section of his property.

"It was difficult taking agricultural land from a farmer," said Gantt, who leases his farmland, "but in this case we chose preserving a wetland and water going to the Chesapeake Bay."

The restoration of a small wetland on the Drennan farm in Monkton was sponsored by the builders of a radio tower in Fallston. The wetlands will filter sediments and pollutants before they reach the adjacent stream, part of the Little Gunpowder Falls watershed, in addition to providing a habitat for a wide variety of wildlife.

Environmental benefits aside, the idea of fixing the area was enough motivation for owner Cathy Drennan.

"We want to keep it country, keep it pristine," Drennan said. "We want to enhance what's already there." The site was close to being considered wetlands. Less than a foot of groundwater was needed to classify it as wetlands.

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