Pennsylvania environmental officials are planning to change their wetland identification methods and mitigation requirements in an effort to make the state's wetland policies and regulations more flexible.

Among the proposed changes, the state will drop its use of the controversial 1989 federal manual for identifying wetlands. Instead, it will use the 1987 federal manual, the same document being used by federal agencies and most other states, including Maryland.

The state Department of Environmental Protection is also planning a new "general permit" that will allow homeowners to fill up to one-half acre of wetlands for the construction of a home if those impacts cannot be avoided, a measure that mirrors a new federal policy. Property owners would be required to pay into a mitigation fund.

DEP Secretary James Seif described the changes in a recent presentation to the Pennsylvania Council of Farm Organizations as a "common-sense approach" to wetland regulation that will make the state program more consistent with federal policies.

"We were encouraged to hear Secretary Seif's approach to making [DEP] farmer-friendly," said Kenneth Brandt, executive secretary of the farm organization. "On the wetlands issue, it's encouraging to hear that the department will be making a distinction between true wetlands and areas that are little more than mudholes. The key is to preserve wetlands that serve a purpose, and these proposals represent a common sense approach toward that goal."

But the state chapter of the Sierra Club is opposing some aspects of the change, particularly the half-acre general permit. Cumulatively, were talking about maybe thousands of acres across the Commonwealth, said Sierra Club spokesman Jeff Schmidt. Theyre not really looking at the cumulative impact.

Schmidt also questioned whether the state was charging enough money in the permits to actually replace the wetlands being lost, and whether the replacements would ever become true, functioning wetlands. Schmidt said that the mitigation fund should include a bonding mechanism to make sure that wetland mitigation being paid for was actually constructed and working.

The changes being proposed by the DEP include:

  • Wetland Delineation Manual. A proposed policy change would adopt the 1987 U.S. Army Corps of Engineers delineation manual, instead of the 1989 manual the state now uses. The 1989 manual is considered slightly more protective of wetlands, but became so controversial that the federal government and most other states abandoned its use for regulatory purposes.
  • Prior Converted Farmland. A proposed policy change would exempt prior converted wetlands agricultural lands that were farmed before 1985 and are still used for production from state wetland regulation. The prior converted farmland designation is recognized in federal programs. In addition, the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service will become the lead agency for identifying prior converted farmland.
  • General Permit for Private Residences in Established Subdivisions. The department has proposed a general permit to allow filling up to one-half acre of wetlands for the construction of homes within established subdivisions if wetland impacts cannot be avoided. Permit applicants would be required to contribute to the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, a nonprofit group, to support wetland restoration efforts across the state. The contribution rate would range from $500 for a tenth of an acre to $7,500 for a half acre.
  • National Fish and Wildlife Foundation Replacement Fund. The DEP will establish a program to receive contributions from permit applicants who are unable to provide replacement wetlands. The fund will be used to offset impacts of up to one-half acre, and contributions to the fund will create and restore environmentally productive wetlands throughout Pennsylvania.
  • Wetland Replacement Registry. The department will propose and maintain a voluntary registry of landowners who wish to have wetlands created on their property. The registry would be available to potential permittees and other groups searching for available wetland restoration and replacement sites. The registry was recommended by the departments Agriculture Advisory Committee.
  • Advanced Wetland Replacement Program. The department will work with the state Department of Transportation to establish advance wetland replacement sites to satisfy the mitigation requirements for unavoidable wetland impacts resulting from construction and maintenance activities. This model can then be expanded for use by utilities and others with ongoing wetland replacement needs.
  • Wetland Management Advisory Committee. A proposed advisory group would advise the department on rules, regulations, policies and procedures concerning the administration and implementation of wetland protection programs. The 16-member committee would include four representatives of business and industry, four environmental organization representatives, four representatives of state and local governments, two representatives of the federal government and two citizen members. Committee members would be selected by the DEP secretary.

The DEP has been taking comments on the proposals, which could become final sometime this fall, said Ken Reisinger, who is in charge of the DEPs wetlands program.

Reisinger said the general permit for residential construction would probably prove to be the most controversial change.

This provides regulatory relief that is not there now, he said, and whenever you have regulatory relief, you will have some pent-up demand for those permits.

The aim of the program is to offset those losses through mitigation projects funded by the new payment system.

The state previously has required, as part of its permits, that landowners mitigate wetland losses usually on site even if the area affected was only a tenth of an acre. But, Reisinger said, fewer than half the mitigation projects of a half-acre or less in size succeed. By having people pay into a fund that will finance larger projects, he said it may be possible to increase the success rate and therefore the amount of wetlands actually being created.

Reisinger said the fee structure, $500 for a tenth of an acre and increasing to $7,500 for a half acre, was designed to discourage unnecessary fills while providing sufficient area for home construction for most homeowners.

The replacement price was based on cost estimates of wetland replacement in Pennsylvania by both the private and public sectors, Reisinger said. Based on public comments, those figures could be revised.