Wilmington Daily Star-News July 21, 2003

DOT adds clout to ecosystem protection

By Gareth McGrath, Staff Writer

A proposal by the N.C. Coastal Land Trust to protect 11/4 miles of marshy, pristine shoreline along Lockwood Folly River in Brunswick County has proven irresistible to state agencies.

Earlier this month the board that oversees the N.C. Department of Transportation approved pursuing the purchase of the 7,000 feet of stream bank for $676,000.

The only problem was that the N.C. Clean Water Management Trust Fund had selected the project for funding last year.

It was one of several mitigation projects approved by the DOT that had already been approved by Clean Water or other state agencies.

Call it teething problems for the DOT's new Ecosystem Enhancement Program (EEP).

Still, officials and environmentalists are excited about the new mitigation program, which aims to speed up projects and offer a more comprehensive approach to protecting the environment.

"I've heard it explained that we're going from a system where the primary goal is to obtain a permit to a system of doing the best project possible with a side benefit of getting the permit," said Ron Ferrell, program manager for the N.C. Wetlands Restoration Program.

The EEP is a new initiative between the DOT, N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources and Army Corps of Engineers. A signing ceremony to formally unveil the new program is scheduled today in Greensboro.

The plan calls for coordinating and combining efforts to produce a more streamlined and environmentally effective way of running the state's mitigation program.

"We're replacing what's historically been an adversarial relationship with a cooperative relationship," Mr. Ferrell said.

The crux of the new program is to have ecological areas under state stewardship before they're needed for mitigation, thereby smoothing out what has become a bumpy ride for some DOT projects.

"EEP is designed to create mitigation opportunities earlier, earlier and earlier over the next five to seven years," said DOT Deputy Secretary Roger Sheats.

The program also allows the state to shift mitigation from areas near the site of transportation projects to protecting potentially more valuable areas in the same watershed - although nearby areas are still preferred.

But officials stressed that a system of state and regulatory checks and balances is in place to prevent mitigation sites from wandering too far afield from areas they're supposed to replace.

"We think this program gives us the opportunity to be more prudent, more efficient and more effectively use the taxpayers' money," Mr. Sheats said, adding that the DOT spends between $65 million and $80 million on mitigation a year.

It can't be much worse than the existing system that's left a backlog of DOT projects that can't receive permits and a backlog of mitigation requirements that can't be met, said Derb Carter, an attorney with the Chapel Hill-based Southern Environmental Law Center.

"What we learned is it's a lot easier to pave wetlands for highways than restore those that are lost," he said.

But the transition to the new program hasn't been without a few bumps in the road.

Hoping to get a helping hand getting up to speed, the DOT asked other state agencies for lists of projects submitted to them by nonprofits and environmental groups.

But the DOT didn't check back to see if the individual agencies had acted on the requests before presenting them to the N.C. Board of Transportation for approval.

"Some balls got dropped," Mr. Ferrell admitted last week.

Officials intend to sit down in the next few weeks to see who will actually fund the projects approved by several state agencies.

Mr. Ferrell said as the EEP gets its feet, he expects the agency to develop its own system for defining eligible properties on its own as well as a process to accept applications from outside partners.

This is the second time in 18 months that crossed lines of communication between the DOT and Clean Water have snared the N.C. Coastal Land Trust.

The first time was last year, when plans by DOT to send highway runoff from a widened U.S. 17 in Scotts Hill onto land already protected by the Land Trust and Clean Water left environmentalists fuming.

The DOT has since redesigned the drainage system, although doing so resulted in more than a year delay to the highway project.

Trust Executive Director Camilla Herlevich said she hopes the DOT's new mitigation program can help supplement existing federal and state programs.

"The good news is there's another program out there for enhancement and protection programs because there are always more projects than money available," she said.

Gareth McGrath: 343-2384 or gareth.mcgrath@starnewsonline.com