June 25, 2008

Developer Fined for McIntosh Marsh Work Workers Filled Wetlands


The owners of a northern McIntosh County development have agreed to pay a $30,000 penalty and restore the property's 25-foot-wide marsh buffer that investigators found had been mowed illegally.

Two state agencies and one federal agency cited the owners last year after workers filled wetlands, cut marshes and graded soil to prepare the site for construction. With the filtering buffer removed, rain washed plumes of muddy water into the nearby Julienton River.

This month, co-owners Anthony Silva and Joseph Soares signed a consent order with the state Environmental Protection Division, which has jurisdiction over the marsh buffer portion of the violations.

Silva said he intends to comply fully with the consent order and had instructed his contractor from the beginning not to break any laws.

"It should never have happened," Silva, of Yonkers, N.Y., said during a telephone interview. The violations were "not done on purpose and we are going to go the extra yard to restore it."

Two more penalty agreements, under the jurisdictions of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the state Department of Natural Resources' Coastal Resources Division, are expected in the coming weeks for the 20-acre site.

According to the EPD agreement, Silva and Soares must pay a $30,000 penalty to the state within 30 days. The marsh buffer must be restored and certified by a Georgia licensed environmental consultant within 45 days.

Altamaha Riverkeeper James Holland, who first reported problems to the DNR, said there was no doubt the news was positive.

"It should send a powerful message to developers that we do have laws and they ought to be obeyed," he said.

Holland was nonetheless troubled over how long it took to shut down construction at the site.

The DNR began investigating the property in March 2007, after workers mowed the marsh on three sides of the property. Cutting marsh vegetation is illegal and in most cases a 25-foot buffer between the edge of the marsh and uplands also must not be touched.

DNR inspectors did not halt construction because developers said the property would be used for forestry, which is exempt from marsh buffer rules.

More clearing followed, tree stumps were pulled and the earth was graded, attracting the attention of the Army Corps of Engineers, which instructed developers to perform a wetlands survey before any more earth-moving.

The Coastal Resources Division instructed Silva to survey the marsh line before disturbing areas near the water. Neither survey was done, nor did owners apply for required permits.

In July 2007, the Georgia Forestry Commission ruled the vegetation planned for the property was not consistent with forestry practices and in August 2007 state and federal regulators stopped all work.

Holland said it is unusual for construction to go on and on after a violation has been reported.

But EPD Sediment and Erosion Team manager Alice Vick said Silva's forestry exemption claim delayed action. Once the violations became larger, coordinating a response between the three regulatory agencies was difficult, she said.

Vick said the $30,000 penalty - based on how much the work deviated from the law and the degree of environmental impact - was the biggest in her division in a year.

Owners must restore the property to its original elevations, using old photos and topographic maps, Vick said. The marsh buffer must be re-planted with native vegetation, according to a consultant's recommendation.

"They can't just roll out the Bermuda sod and say they're done," Vick said.

She said many out-of-state owners are not familiar with Georgia law.

"Violations are getting to be really routine. We have one other consent order in McIntosh County being finalized and three more pending," Vick said. "There is a real need to educate the county that these laws exist."

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