The dollar amount sounds large but the loss is larger—wetland forest has lost in the end. The SWANCC decision of 2001 left the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers treating high quality, forested wetlands as “isolated” and nonjurisdictional. At the time, the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency (Ohio EPA) quickly informed a developer, Heritage Development Company, that such wetlands were still protected under state law. Unconvinced of the state’s position and ignoring any natural values of the land in Northeast Ohio, the developer clear-cut a forested wetland, thereby destroying the mature forest and devastating the high quality habitat. The actions resulted in a lawsuit brought by the State of Ohio last summer.
Recently, the developer agreed to pay a $1 million civil penalty for clear-cutting the trees and destroying the forested wetlands. The fine is the largest ever imposed by the Ohio EPA in a wetlands case. The penalty came as part of a settlement agreement after a Geauga County Common Pleas Court judge ruled in late January that the company acted improperly. The settlement also instructs Heritage Development Company to buy 32.5 acres of wetlands and forest for preservation and develop 5 acres of high-quality wetlands near the original site.
About $500,000 of the fine will be placed into an escrow account to help the Geauga County Park District buy and preserve wetland habitat. The remaining $500,000 will be split between the state for reimbursement for its costs in the case and the Ohio EPA for the Ohio Environmental Education Fund and surface water programs.