Increased Wetland Fees Won’t Deter Illegal Activities

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Dear Editor:

The Accomack County Board of Supervisors has proposed increasing the “in lieu” fee for wetlands (see Carol Vaughn’s story about last week’s board of supervisors meeting on Page 2 of this week’s paper).

It sounds like this is prompted by VMRC’s “commitment of no loss of non-vegetated wetlands,” but keep in mind, VMRC  historically leads the way in approving after-the-fact permits, which are simply a way to charge a fee for allowing an illegal and/or unpermitted project to remain in place by paying a fee, instead of requiring the applicant to return their property to its previous condition. When you allow the applicant to retain the results of their habitat destruction, you make it worthwhile for them to intentionally break the law for their own benefit. Such projects cause the destruction of wetlands, then attempt to make up for that by trying to replace what was lost. The fees and mitigation projects almost never adequately replace what was lost. The only way to have a real chance for successful mitigation is requiring long term monitoring (5 years) and a requirement that any plants that do not survive must be replanted until restoration is complete.

Otherwise, it is like letting someone clear-cut a forest and saying if they plant some saplings, the clear-cut is fixed. Not only is the full benefit of the forest canopy not replaced for many years, but if the saplings are not watered and nurtured, you can easily lose the benefits of the mitigation.

I worked for VMRC for seven years back in the 1990s, so I have seen this firsthand for decades. I have also worked for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Florida Park Service where all or a part of my job involved habitat restoration in a wide variety of habitats — everything from salmon habitat in far northern California to sea grass, coral and mangrove habitat in the Florida Keys. From those years of experience, I can tell you it is VERY rare for habitat mitigation/restoration to actually replace the value of what was destroyed. I can’t think of a single instance where what was replaced was better than what was destroyed, even after years of effort to fix it.

Also keep in mind that although Northampton County has a mechanism for charging fees for wetlands mitigation, we have no structure in place to actually perform the mitigation projects — so in effect, we may feel good by charging violators a fee, but the money goes in a black hole and does nothing to restore the environment we allowed to be destroyed.

I’d advise taking this type of legislation as little more than a Band-Aid on an open wound. Better to impose fines and penalties severe enough to effectively prevent anyone from attempting a project which might cause severe financial problems or even land the perpetrator in jail. And if they do it anyway, make them return it to the habitat’s previous condition, at their own expense, so they do not reap the benefits of the illegal activity.

Our recent initiative to post public notice in the paper about the requirements for permitting work in the wetlands is a good first step. Substantial penalties and no longer letting someone off because they claim they “did not know they needed a permit” are the next step.

David Boyd,
Cape Charles

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