Marsh madness

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Cleveland is built on wetlands. Part of the reason it grew so quickly in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was an absence of laws affecting construction on lands with watersheds that fed into the Cuyahoga River and Lake Erie.

In hindsight, there probably should have been a bit more environmental regulation. Not only would it have prevented widespread pollution, it might have spared the city from becoming a national punch line for every environmental joke.

But that’s ancient history. Today, when an Ohio company wants to build on raw land, there are two governmental bodies looking over its shoulder. The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers demand strict adherence to environmental regulations affecting undeveloped land. What’s good for the environment, however, adds considerable time and cost to any construction project on wetlands.

“It can take six to nine months dealing with the government before you can even start the project,” says attorney Steven Marrer, a partner at Taft, Stettinius & Hollister LLP in Cleveland. “In some cases, it might not be worth it. You’ll just have to look elsewhere.”

If there is a piece of undeveloped land that’s too perfect to pass up for your next construction project, here are the steps you must follow.

Step One: Get a wetlands delineation survey

Most companies need to hire an environmental consultant to perform this kind of survey, which will determine where wetlands are on the property, how they are configured and their category. The consultant will also serve as a representative when negotiating with the government later in the process.

Step Two: Fill out permits

If the construction project disturbs less than a half-acre of wetlands, your company will not usually need a special permit from U.S. Army Corps of Engineers or the Ohio EPA. If the project will disturb a half-acre or more, you’ll need to complete two permits — a Section 404 Permit for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and a Section 401 Permit for the Ohio EPA. Both ensure that your project meets federal and state wetlands regulations.

Step Three: Submit your plans

The wetlands permits require you to submit three versions of your construction project to the government. The first version is your ideal plan. The second is an alternative plan that will disturb fewer wetlands. The third is for the project not to disturb any wetlands.

“The third plan is usually something that can’t exist,” Marrer says. “It would just be too difficult to complete.”

Once you have the two permits approved, you can start building. How to reach: Taft, Stettinius & Hollister LLP, (216) 241-2838

Categorical denial

There are three categories of protected wetlands.

Category one

These wetlands are very low quality and easily replaceable. You will not need to alter your construction project much, if at all, with this category.

Category two

These wetlands are more closely protected. They might include a water source or plant life that will be more difficult to replace. This category requires a more drastic change to the construction plans.

Category three

You can’t touch these wetlands. They are considered irreplaceable.

There are Wetlands Mitigation Banks, like Trumbull Creek in Ashtabula County, where companies can purchase wetlands as a swap for the wetlands destroyed during building. Once purchased, the lands in a mitigation bank are blocked from development. Prices usually run $20,000 an acre.