Virginia’s 1.3 million acres of nontidal wetlands would be protected under legislation expected to be introduced by a bipartisan group of state lawmakers in the 2000 General Assembly session.

The bill is a response to a loophole created by a 1997 federal appeals court ruling last year that allowed developers to drain, but not fill, nontidal wetlands without permits from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Since the appeals court threw out a federal regulation known as the “Tulloch Rule,” draining has begun on more than 2,200 acres in southeastern Virginia, according to the Corps. Draining of another 6,500 acres is “planned or likely” the Corps said.

Unlike other Bay states, Virginia does not have a nontidal wetland program of its own to fill the regulatory gap created by the ruling. State Attorney General Mark Earley concluded the state does not have authority under existing law to establish a regulatory program.

That would change under a proposal that would require wetlands owners to obtain a permit from the state Department of Environmental Quality before draining their land. L. Preston Bryant Jr., the bill’s chief sponsor in the House of Delegates, called the measure one of the “most important pieces of environmental legislation in the past 10 years.”

Michael L. Toalson of the Home Builders Association of Virginia said his group would oppose the bill. He said comprehensive regulatory reform at the federal level is needed, including a more specific definition of what constitutes a wetland.

Gov. Jim Gilmore is also expected to announce a proposal that would, at a minimum, address the Tulloch loophole, but details were not available.