Wait Problems

The hazards of backyard "wetlands"


Floridian Lloyd Wilson wanted to build a home on a lot he owns. Then he found that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had designated 260 square feet of his property—the size of a large room—as wetlands. The Army Corps made Wilson wait more than nine months before letting construction proceed.

A property owner who has any amount of land that has been designated as wetlands must navigate a public-notice-and-comment period, hire consultants to negotiate with regulators, and wait for the Army Corps to consult with as many as four other agencies before deciding whether to allow development. Environmental attorney Virginia S. Albrecht and environmental consultant Bernard N. Goode reviewed all of the Army Corps' 1992 applications to build on property that had been designated as wetlands. They found that one-fourth of the applications had wetlands of less than a quarter acre and just under half had less than one acre of wetlands. The average property owner waited 373 days to get through the permit process.

Albrecht and Goode also discovered that 61 percent of the 1992 applications were withdrawn. While the Army Corps may deny only 5 percent of all applications, "The plain fact is that in most cases a withdrawn application, like a denied application, means that the applicant cannot go forward with his or her project."

Meanwhile, reports a recent Competitive Enterprise Institute study, the United States is actually creating more wetlands than are being destroyed. For 1994, several Agriculture Department programs are expected to restore an estimated 167,000 acres of wetlands—representing a potential net gain of 27,000 wetland acres. In that context, penalizing property owners like Wilson with expensive delays because of tiny "wetlands" on their land seems both unjust and unnecessary.