Close to midnight on the night before I wrote my Real Estate exam, I did one final Google search to make sure that I’d studied all that I needed for the next day’s big test. I checked the Real Estate Commission of Alaska’s page and found, to my horror, that wetlands were a new topic on the test. NONE of the training materials I had covered Wetlands. None of them!
So I did what any panicked test taker would do, I started furiously googling. Lucky for me, I came across the right information because I was able to answer the test questions. But for someone who works in an area with an abundance of wetlands, answering test questions isn’t enough. Plus, I like relevant information. What’s applicable to Anchorage, isn’t always applicable here.
I contacted Dena O’Dell from the Alaskan Army Corps of Engineers for a chat about what a Wetland designation means for a property buyer.
What’s a Wetland?
According to Dena O’Dell, “The US Army Corps of Engineers (The Corps) defines Wetlands as areas that are inundated or saturated by surface or groundwater at a frequency and duration sufficient to support (and normally do support) a prevalence of vegetation typically adapted for life in saturated soil conditions.”
The Corps uses three characteristics to determine if wetlands are present: vegetation, soil, and hydrology. To make a wetland determination, they look at the types of plants on the site, the color and texture of the soils, and for indicators that water (hydrology) is present on the site during the growing season.
“Some people assume that if a site has no standing water on it, or if a site has large trees on it, that there are no wetlands are present,” says O’Dell. “Although that could be the case, there are different types of wetlands; some wetlands occur on slopes, some wetlands never have surface water, and many wetlands have trees on them.”
How do I know if the property I’m considering has a Wetland on it?
There is an interactive map on the Kenai Peninsula Borough’s Web site. You’ll find it at: http://mapserver.borough.kenai.ak.us/kpbmapviewer/
To use the Parcel Viewer: In the top left corner of the page, click the find button. Use the drop-down box to find the address, and enter your property’s street address. If you have an MLS listing, the tax id number on the listing can be entered into the parcel id field. Once you find your parcel, find the Map Display drop-down box and choose Wetlands. Viola!
What if my property is identified as having some kind of Wetland?
If you see that a property has wetlands on it, then a call to the US Army Corps of Engineers is warranted for a formal Wetland Determination. A formal determination will tell you whether an area contains Waters of the United States (WOUS, or Wetlands) and identify the boundaries of the Wetland.
Knowing your Wetland boundaries is critical if you want to develop land in, beside, or around a Wetland.
“We encourage people to contact us early to discuss the permit process, and discuss any avoidance and minimization efforts that could be incorporated into your design,” says O’Dell. “Even if Wetlands are on a property, projects can be designed to avoid the need for a permit from the Corps. We can help.”
Contact the US Army Corps of Engineers Kenai Field office at (907) 753-2689.
Once you’ve drafted a plan to build that includes ways to avoid and minimize your impact on Wetlands, the Army Corps must then decide if the remaining impacts on Wetlands would result in the degradation of the watershed.
If they do, then the Corps might ask for other mitigation efforts to make up for it and offset the impact to the watershed. These might be through restoration, enhancement, or preservation of some other Wetland in the watershed.
“The Army Corps is neither a proponent nor an opponent of proposed building activities,” notes O’Dell. “Our regulations only address the discharge of dredged or fill material, they do not specifically discuss types of buildings. When making our public interest determination, we balance the project’s potential benefits against the detriments to the public as a result of our proposed activity.”
Can Wetlands be Developed?
If Wetlands are present on a property, it does not automatically mean that the lot cannot be developed.
“If a person proposes the permanent or temporary discharge of material in Waters of the United States, that person would need to contact the Corps to seek additional information,” explains O’Dell.
That means that you would need to seek Army Corps authorization for activities such as (but not limited to): road building, residential or commercial construction, land leveling, or sidecasting from ditching activities.
“If a person wants to build a boat dock, place a mooring buoy, or any other structure in navigable waters, including in Beluga Lake, that person would need to contact the Corps about a permit,” she includes.
As they go through the permitting process, the Army Corps will take into consideration what you are trying to achieve and how that purpose can be met while avoiding and minimizing impacts to Wetlands.
The larger the impact to Waters, the more detailed their evaluation will be.
“Even when WOUS are on a property, in some cases, projects can be designed in such a way as to avoid the need for a permit from the Corps,” says O’Dell. “If Wetlands cannot be avoided entirely and a permit is required, beginning discussions with the Corps early in the design process generally saves time in the long run. Then, when a design is mostly complete, you need to submit an application to our office.”
How can I minimize the Impact to Wetlands?
You can minimize the impact on Wetlands by using up all available uplands (areas that are not wet), installing a bridge instead of a culvert, constructing a pile-supported structure instead of a structure on a slab, or horizontal directional drilling.
“You can make other measures to minimize impacts to WOUS,” adds O’Dell. “Including driving on wetland mats or frozen ground, installing sediment and erosion control, sidecasting material from trenches onto geotextile fabric, or installing culverts to maintain adequate stream or flood flows.”
The Bottom Line?
If you’re planning to develop Wetlands, you need to factor in time. “On small projects, most of the time, we can get to a permit decision within 60 days of receiving a complete application,” says O’Dell. “For larger projects, our goal is to reach a permit decision within 120 days of receiving a complete application.”
You don’t need to own the property to request a determination. However, if the Army Corps needs to access the property, you would need permission from the owner.
Remember that the Corps can only make onsite determinations during the growing season (May to early October). People with properties greater than 5 acres or who propose a commercial development are encouraged to hire a consultant to complete a Wetlands determination report and submit it to the Army Corps.