The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the EPA and the Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service announced in March three new initiatives to "reduce the regulatory burdens" on property owners seeking wetland permits.

The measures include:

A new nationwide general permit that will make it easier to construct or expand a home. The proposal would allow landowners to affect up to one-half acre of wetlands to construct a single-family home and related features, such as a garage and driveway, without a permit. The corps planned to formally propose the nationwide permit in the Federal Register in March. The public will have an opportunity to comment on the proposal before the permit becomes final.

The EPA and the corps are clarifying the regulatory flexibility available to individuals seeking to construct or expand homes, farm buildings and small business facilities where the impacts affect two acres or less and are not covered otherwise by the new nationwide permit. For example, landowners proposing to expand a small business would not be asked to look at off-site options or alternatives.

The corps, EPA and the Natural Resources Conservation Service, along with the departments of Interior and Commerce, proposed guidelines for the establishment and use of wetland mitigation banks. The guidance will expedite the process used to approve the establishment and use of such banks, providing landowners with greater flexibility in meeting mitigation requirements. Mitigation banking means the restoration, creation, enhancement and - in some cases - the preservation of wetlands expressly for the purpose of compensating for future wetland losses. The guidance, published in mid-March, will be out for public comment for 45 days.

Robert Perciasepe, assistant EPA administrator for water, said that "we are reforming programs but not rolling back the protection of our nation's valuable wetland resources."

The proposals, though, were immediately criticized by those on both sides of the contentious wetlands issue.

Rep. Billy Tauzin, D-La., a longtime advocate of weakening wetland regulations, called it "much too little, much too late," and predicted that Congress will further loosen wetland restrictions.

But Michael Caire of the Sierra Club called it a "shortsighted attempt" to appease those who want to weaken wetland regulations and predicted the plan would lead to billions of dollars in expenditures to repair and replace homes