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Critics say limits on wetlands risky

A plan to ease restrictions on developing the Mississippi Gulf Coast’s federally protected wetlands is under fire from critics who say the proposal would leave a region hit hard by Hurricane Katrina even more vulnerable to flooding from another storm.

The plan, unveiled this month by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, would allow developers to fill in up to five acres of “low quality” wetlands in south Mississippi without an individual permit from the Corps for each project.

The proposal, which does not affect wetlands in neighboring Louisiana and Alabama, also would eliminate a requirement that the public must be notified of such development plans.

David Hobbie, chief of the Corps’ regulatory division in Mobile, Ala., said increasing the permitting limit — from a half-acre to five acres — would streamline the regulatory process in a region where tens of thousands of homes must be rebuilt after Katrina.

“It cuts through some of the government red tape,” Hobbie said. “That does not mean that (developers) are allowed to impact any more wetlands than we would typically allow.”

But environmental advocates said the Corps’ plan would deal a severe blow to the region’s wetlands, which help control flooding from storms.

Holly Gordon, of the Stanford Law School Environmental Law Clinic, said there are plenty of places on the Gulf Coast to build homes after Katrina that won’t encroach on wetlands.

“I understand the need to rebuild,” she said, “but by choosing to build on wetlands, you are endangering people’s homes and lives in future storms.”

Hobbie said issuing a “regional general permit” for Mississippi’s six southernmost counties also would help ease the workload on the Corps’ already overburdened staff and accelerate the pace of rebuilding homes.

That argument rings hollow to Howard Page, conservation chairman for the Sierra Club’s Mississippi chapter. Easing government oversight of wetlands projects and cutting the public out of the process isn’t the solution to the region’s housing shortage, Page argues.

“They’re solving the problem by avoiding the problem,” he said.

Gordon said local environmental advocates have identified numerous sites — at least four in Gulfport alone — where developers are illegally filling Gulf Coast wetlands without seeking permits from the Corps. And the Corps, she claimed, has been slow to respond to complaints about these projects.

“The Corps is completely understaffed,” she said. “They don’t have the resources or the manpower they need to inspect these sites.”

The public has until Nov. 10 to comment on the Corps’ proposal, which doesn’t apply to tidal wetlands, historical sites or habitats for endangered wildlife species. The plan can be changed at the end of the public comment period, Hobbie noted.

Hobbie said he understands that easing the restrictions has a “shock value” to it, but he suspects the backlash from the plan’s critics is the result of a misunderstanding.

“I don’t see it as being a huge, significant change,” he said.

Don Halle, owner of Gulf Construction Co., said it recently took him 14 months to obtain permits from the Corps to build 33 single-family homes on property in Gulfport that included 1 1/2 acres of wetlands.

“This proposal will help speed up the process a little bit, but it doesn’t change any of the rules we have to live by,” he said, calling the plan a “very good start for us.”

“It would certainly open a lot more areas for development along the Mississippi Gulf Coast than we have right now,” he added.