US house building industry blasts new rules on wetlands development

New regulations requiring developers to seek permits for work on any wetland area larger than one half an acre (0.2ha) have been heavily criticised by the National Association of Home Builders.

The new rules come from the US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), which regulates building on wetlands. With its current Nationwide Permit (NWP) Number 26 expiring in June, the USACE has chosen to replace it with a group of new NWPs. These new permits, and modifications to others, mean that unregulated development of wetlands – currently legal on sites up to three acres (1.2ha) – will be reduced to sites up to half an acre (0.2ha).

The USACE is also stipulating that developers notify it – but not seek a permit – for development of any wetland sites of at least one-tenth of an acre (0.04ha).

“These changes will benefit the nation’s aquatic environment by increasing protection to critical resource waters and within the 100-year floodplain while continuing to authorise projects with minimal adverse effects,” said John Studt, chief of the USACE regulatory branch.

Although the new rules require developers to seek permits for smaller areas, they are designed to “authorise many of the same activities previously permitted”, according to the USACE.

Such assurances were not welcomed by the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB), which has predicted a huge increase in USACE’s workload and “a new era of regulatory overkill”. The Association’s president, Robert Mitchell, argues that “as a result of this ill-advised decision by the Corps, builders can expect delays of months or even a year if they cannot avoid the small, depressional areas of essentially dry land on their sites that qualify as wetlands”.

The NAHB also believes that the USACE may be overstepping its regulatory powers and will ask Congress to investigate.

Poor regulation of wetlands development has been identified by many US scientists and environmentalists as the primary cause of residential flooding disasters in the country. The Sierra Club has argued that 99% of applications to drain and develop wetlands were successful in the years between 1988 and 1996 (see related story).

Other organisations, including the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), have tracked natural disasters in the US over the past few decades and concluded that unsustainable development practices have resulted in higher in costs for the rehabilitation of areas affected (see related story).

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