A controversy over a new Pennsylvania "general permit" that allows residential development in wetlands has been resolved, with the state Department of Environmental Protection agreeing to narrow the scope of the permit.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation earlier this year filed a complaint with the state Environmental Hearing Board over the department's General Permit 15, which allows as much as one-half acre of wetlands to be filled for home construction in residential subdivisions approved in November 1991 or before.

The general permit was one of several changes the department made to simplify its wetland permitting process in January. The DEP said the permit was established because of the difficulty, especially in the Poconos, of avoiding wetlands on existing lots.

But the CBF, with assistance from Widener Environmental Law Clinic, challenged the permit in March, saying it was broader than necessary to provide relief for landowners who purchased property before wetland restrictions were widely known or enforced.

"We believed that the original proposal went far beyond the legitimate goal of helping small, individual lot owners who purchased property prior to the implementation of Pennsylvania's wetland protection program," said Jolene

Chinchilli, CBF's Pennsylvania executive director. "We're encouraged by this agreement and believe that it represents a reasonable compromise with significant improvement to GP-15."

Under the agreement, the DEP will propose changes to the permit so that only the current owner of the lot be eligible for the permit, and only if he or she owned the lot in November 1991. Originally, the DEP proposed that the November 1991 cutoff date apply to the date the property was subdivided. In addition, DEP has agreed to prohibit the use of the permit in floodplains.

The state will seek public comment on the changes before considering them for final approval.

"We have come up with a reasonable agreement that will allow us to propose changes to GP-15 that reinforce the original intent of the permit - to provide a common-sense solution for people helplessly caught in a change of government rules," said DEP Secretary James Seif. "This general permit, combined with the Wetlands Replacement Fund, provides new options for landowners to resolve wetlands concerns."

Seif said that since the permit was introduced last spring, only 14 permits had been issued, including four in the rapidly developing Poconos of northeastern Pennsylvania where much of the concern over the new permit had been focused.

Wetlands protect water quality by filtering nutrients, sediments and other pollutants out of runoff before it enters rivers and streams. They also protect nearby and downstream property from flood damage by retaining flood water and releasing it slowly over time.