A federal judge has suspended the use of an Army Corps of Engineers permit used to streamline the wetland permit process to build single-family homes. 

The injunction, issued April 30 by U.S. District Judge John Sedwick, stems from a 1996 lawsuit filed by 16 environmental groups who alleged that the Corps' Nationwide Permit for Single-Family Housing (Nationwide Permit 29) allows "far more" than the "minimal" environmental harm allowed under the Clean Water Act, and adversely affects threatened and endangered species. 

Saying the permit could result in "serious and likely irreversible" environmental harm, Sedwick ordered the Corps not to accept any new permits after June 30.

"This is a truly remarkable victory for the Chesapeake Bay, where sprawling residential development is a proven threat," said Will Baker, president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, one of the groups filing the suit.

The permit, approved in 1995, allowed landowners to affect up to one-half acre of wetlands to construct a single-family home and related features, such as a garage and a driveway, without the review normally required.

It is one of several "Nationwide Permits" routinely approved by the Corps in situations that are supposed to have only minimal environmental impacts. The nationwide permit program has long been criticized by environmentalists, but this was the first time a court has struck one down.

Sedwick ruled that the Corps violated the National Environmental Policy Act when it issued the permits without environmental safeguards and public notice normally required by the Clean Water Act for wetland fills.

According to the court order, the Corps failed to adequately consider alternatives to the permit, such as reducing the size of the fill and excluding fills in high-value waters. Such projects now will need to go through the normal review process.

The groups challenging the permit called it "a misguided attempt to streamline Clean Water Act regulation" that not only harmed the environment, but also many of the homeowners the permit was intended to help. Houses built in wetlands often become a problem for unsuspecting buyers, the groups said, as foundations settle unevenly, septic systems fail, basements and ground floors flood, and yards erode.

Beyond its immediate impact on Nationwide Permit 29, the judge's ruling could help shape other nationwide permits, environmentalists say. The Corps has proposed to issue more nationwide permits which could be published in the Federal Register soon.

"We certainly hope this decision will spur the Corps to take a hard look at these new permits and avoid issuing needlessly broad authorizations to fill sensitive and valuable wetlands," said George Chmael, Maryland staff attorney for CBF.