Pamlico Commissioners Want Answers

BAYBORO — The Pamlico County Board of Commissioners voted unanimously last night to send a letter to the head of the Army Corps of Engineers in Wilmington asking him to re-examine his agency’s  determination that wetlands aren’t present on hundreds of forested acres near Merritt that were cleared for farming.

The letter also asks Col. Steven A. Baker, commander of the Corps’ Wilmington District, to ensure that the Corps does its job and protect the remaining wetlands on the 4,600-acre Atlas Tract.

The commissioners also sent a draft ordinance to its planning board that would require landowners to notify the county before ditching and draining wetlands. Under the proposed ordinance, landowners would also need affirmative statements by responsible regulatory agencies that drainage of their land is allowed under federal and state laws. The planning board will send the completed ordinance back to the commissioners, who will consider it at a public meeting probably in about two months.

An excavator works in a ditch on the Atlas Tract in Pamlico County. Photo: Rick Dove

The commissioners last night also voted to ask their representatives in the N.C. General Assembly to introduce a bill that would protect the county from large-scale wetland drainage in the future.

Spring Creek Farms LLC, which is registered in Illinois, owns the Atlas Tract, according to Pamlico County tax records. Donal P. Barry Jr. of Park Ridge, Ill., is the only listed member of the partnership, according to records at the Illinois Secretary of State’s office.

About 250 acres on the south side of State Road 1324 have already been cleared. Farming could begin any time. Both the Corps and the N.C. Division of Water Resources have said that no wetlands exist on the property and thus no permits are needed under the federal Clean Water Act.

The land clearing was first described in a story last month in the Coastal Review Online and followed up in another story yesterday. It has raised fears among local farmers and business leaders that wetlands were destroyed, which could lead to serious coastal water quality and habitat degradation.

The issue has drawn so much attention that last night’s meeting was moved to the courthouse to accommodate a larger than expected crowd. About 100 people attended the meeting.

Allen Propst, the owner of a real-estate company in Oriental, was there. He has been a vocal opponent of the land clearing and urged the commissioners to take action. “It’s like the wild, wild west,” he said. “The gunslingers are in town and the sheriff is out to lunch.”

The county received a letter from the Corps yesterday afternoon, but it provided “scant” information, said Paul Delamar, a commissioner.

During discussions about the letter and proposed ordinance, commissioners said all landowners in the county should receive equal treatment. They said it was inappropriate for any landowner to change hydrology of land illegally before asking the Corps to come out and make wetlands determination.

The Corps’ use of a 1993 Google Earth photo to document the history of ditching on the land was criticized, especially since a photo at the Farm Service Agency clearly shows no ditches existed on the property in 1988.  Any ditching done after passage of the federal Clean Water Act of 1972 would either need to be done with a permit or as “minor” drainage under a forestry exemption. The forestry exemption does not allow wetlands to be converted to uplands, and there’s no record that the Corps issued a permit for the ditches that now exist on the property.

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Staff Report

The story was compiled by staff members of Coastal Review Online.