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Plan to ease gulf wetlands rules scaled back

Rising from Ruin
Katrina's devastating impact on housing along the Mississippi Gulf Coast in towns like Bay St. Louis, Miss., is behind the push to speed construction of new homes. David Friedman / file
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Responding to an outpouring of complaints, federal officials have dramatically scaled back a proposal to speed up development in wetland areas along the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers unveiled a plan last fall to cut red tape in an effort to speed construction following Hurricane Katrina, but the proposal triggered a storm of protest from the environmental community after it was first reported by in October.

Since the passage of the 1972 Clean Water Act, the Corps has claimed jurisdiction over virtually all of the nation’s wetlands, which are vital to ecosystems for their role in filtering runoff, controlling floods and decreasing erosion. Wetlands are an especially hot topic in the wake of Katrina, since flooding from the storm was made worse by the loss of marshes and bogs to centuries of development in the region; the storm also claimed thousands of acres of remaining wetlands.

In its original version, the Corps plan would have allowed property owners and developers in the six southernmost Mississippi counties to avoid the standard permit process if they wanted to fill 5 acres or less of “low-quality” wetlands for virtually any purpose — from shopping centers to housing tracts to churches. Gone were requirements for a 30-day public notice period and individual environmental assessments.

The revised plan, now open for public comments until March 9, has three major changes, said E. Patrick Robbins, public affairs officer for the Corps’ Mobile, Ala., District, which includes the Mississippi Gulf Coast:

  • The amount of acreage that could be filled without a permit has been cut from 5 to 3.
  • Only residential construction — both single dwellings and multi-unit developments — and “institutional” uses (government buildings, schools, churches and hospitals) are allowed to take advantage of the streamlined process.
  • Seven-day review periods for other federal and state agencies have been added.

“There are a lot more restrictions on it than there were before,” Robbins said, the result of more than 5,000 “comments and concerns we received from the public, federal, state and local agencies.” He said the new rules also exclude “all tidal waters” and “non-tidal waters within 200 feet of tidal waters.” Also off-limits for the speedy permit process would be all development in 100-year flood plains as defined by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, he said.

Even so, the new rules would be a boon to area builders who are facing soaring labor, material and land costs as they race to replenish housing stocks devastated by the 2005 hurricane, the costliest storm in U.S. history.

“Anything is helpful from what we had,” said Don Halle of Gulf Construction Co., vice president of the Home Builders Association of the Gulf Coast and a member of the state contractors board. “Time is a big part of the problem in developing a piece of land. My projects, I’ve had them taking 12 to 14 months to get them permitted. If we know that we can move quicker on projects, it’s certainly going to be helpful.”

But environmentalists remain unsatisfied.

“The difference between the original proposal and the revised one is like the difference between getting a bullet to bite on or a shot of whiskey before your leg is amputated,” said Jeff Grimes of the Gulf Restoration Network. “One might be a bit better, but neither option is anything you would ever want to consider.”

'Part of the compromise'
Halle said he and fellow builders have no intention of harming environmentally sensitive lands and was glad to see tidal areas and sites near them excluded. “That’s something that I agree needs to be protected,” he said. “To me, that should be part of the compromise on this, that we do stay away from those type areas.”

But Grimes and other environmentalists warned that accommodating development by easing the rules at all threatens to bring even worse flooding to the region in the future and is not necessary to rebuild housing.

“The Corps did make some improvements to the original proposal, but really missed the overall point,” Grimes said. “Coastal Mississippi has significant flooding problems when it rains, let alone when hurricanes come ashore. I think once again this demonstrates that the Corps is more interested in permitting wetland loss than protecting wetlands.”

Mississippi Sierra Club Chairman Howard Page agreed. “We want more regulatory oversight,” not less, he said. “We want them to start doing their job. They’re completely looking at this wrong.

“There’s no reason to get a wetlands permit to restore a building that was destroyed in Katrina,” Page said. “The reason they’re going to wetlands has nothing to do with rebuilding from Katrina, it has everything to do with economic opportunism,” because the land is cheaper.

Gulfport Community activist Derrick Evans said the Corps is motivated by politics. Despite changing the rules to please developers, the new proposal would exempt Evans’ neighborhood in Gulfport, the Turkey Creek watershed, from the fast-track process. Evans believes that’s because the group of which he is executive director, Turkey Creek Initiatives, has fought long and hard to make the point that improper development in the area has exacerbated flooding.

“They knew Turkey Creek was a squeaky wheel,” Evans said. “I guess they figured we’d shut up and go home, but if we were right here, we must be right about something across the entire area.” So while he’s “very glad” for the exemption, he said his group will still fight the new proposal.

The Corps’ Robbins said Turkey Creek was exempted because of “an ongoing federal study” on flooding issues in the area, not because of political pressure.

Halle of the home builders’ group said it would be impossible to please the environmentalists. “What I’ve found is there’s no compromise with them,” he said.