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New Wetlands Proposal Wets Developers' Lips

Opponents argue the legislation favors industry over environment

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ALEX GROSS, a developer in suburban Atlanta, is upset.

Five years ago, Mr. Gross's company, Atlanta Suburbia Estates Ltd., bought 150 acres of level land it planned to develop into soccer fields, a lake, and a golf course.

But as workers started digging, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) discovered between 20 and 40 acres of the land were in a flood plain. Though the land remained dry most years, at that time it was covered with water from torrential rains that had caused widespread flooding in the South.

The EPA said the area was wetlands and told Atlanta Suburbia it could not develop most of the 150 acres. Now the company is paying $1 million of interest on land it says it can't use and can't sell.

''It is an unbelievable horror story,'' Gross says.

But the tables could turn in favor of developers such as Gross, who complain that the laws regulating wetlands, which fall under the jurisdiction of the Clean Water Act, are too rigid.

A House bill that passed in May and a similar one being considered in the Senate would give a new definition for wetlands, bogs, swamps, marshes, sloughs, prairie potholes, and playas that cover about 5 percent of the landmass in the United States.

Swampy swath in South

Especially in the South, where bayous and swamps cut a wide swath, the legislation could have broad implications. Under the new wetlands definition, an average of 60 percent of every state's wetlands would no longer fall under federal protection. In 16 states, including Georgia, more than 80 percent of wetlands would be removed from protection according to a new survey conducted by the Army Corps of Engineers, with help from the EPA and the Interior Department's Fish and Wildlife Service.

The proposal has created a heated debate between environmentalists and land developers.

Environmentalists argue that redefining wetlands could result in a substantial loss of one of the world's most vital resources. Proponents argue it will streamline a system that is tangled in red tape and help people such as Gross.

''We think [the proposed amendments] would go a long way in clarifying the situation for property owners, builders, people who don't know where they stand,'' says Michael Luzier, director of environmental regulations for the National Association of Home Builders in Washington.

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