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Great Lakes Article:

Environmentalists, developers clash over wetlands policy

Associated Press


Posted: 08/30/2002

INDIANAPOLIS — Wetlands isolated from lakes or streams are at the center of a debate among Indiana environmentalists, builders, farmers and legislators over the state's authority to regulate them.

A panel of state lawmakers this summer is trying to decide how strictly such wetlands, some smaller than an acre, should be regulated by the Indiana Department of Environmental Management.

Wetlands provide breeding areas for waterfowl, offer habitat for plants and animals, help filter groundwater and control flooding.

They also often stand in the way of millions of dollars in housing and business development that many communities would welcome. It all adds up to what state Sen. Beverly Gard calls "a very contentious issue."

"I think the General Assembly has pretty well said we think we need to do something," said Gard, R-Greenfield, a member of the Legislature's Environmental Quality Service Committee.

The panel was instructed to work on the issue over the summer. The issue came to a head after a Fort Wayne home builder won a lawsuit claiming IDEM did not have the power to regulate isolated wetlands.

That claim was based partly on a 2001 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that federal jurisdiction over isolated wetlands didn't exist — and IDEM had been regulating them under the federal Clean Water Act.

IDEM claimed it still had state authority, but developers said the Legislature had never granted it that power. The agency is being allowed to continue regulating isolated wetlands while it appeals.

But Gard and others say it's time for lawmakers to settle the matter permanently by adopting rules and giving IDEM the authority to regulate them.

Environmentalists fear those rules could be significantly more lax once lawmakers and businesses are done weighing in.

"Regulated folks want weaker rules overall, and that's where we will be focused to try to prevent that," said Tim Maloney, executive director of the Hoosier Environmental Council.

"The idea that isolated wetlands are somehow interfering with economic progress does not make sense," he said. "It's such a small area that it is totally bogus to say it would interfere with sensible development."

Maloney said isolated wetlands — most of Indiana's are 1- to 10-acre areas in the northern part of the state — provide the same benefits as those connected to other waterways. But developers say it makes no economic or environmental sense to keep some smaller wetlands.

"If it's anything substantial, we preserve it and make it part of the (development's) open space," said Orrin Sessions, vice chairman of the Indiana Home Builders Association's land development committee. "But a little spot in the middle of a residential area doesn't do anyone any good; it's better to have a wetland out where wildlife can get to it."

That could be the heart of the issue in Indiana.

Industry and agriculture officials want the state to allow wetlands "banking," in which farmers or developers could restore a former wetland or create a new one, and developers could buy into it in exchange for filling wetlands elsewhere.

The concept is similar to state and federal air pollution programs that allow businesses to bank or trade emissions reductions.

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