Special Reports

$92 million in restored land far from damage

In 1999, the state Department of Transportation paid $5.3 million for more than 400 acres of restored and preserved wetland in eastern Pitt County, just north of the Tar River.

Twelve years later, only five of those acres have been declared useful for offsetting damage from development. That's mainly because there hasn't been much development nearby.

The site, called Grimesland, is among 16 sites the state owns inareas where development hasn't taken off as it has in the Triangle or Mecklenburg County. The state calls them "excessive surplus mitigation assets." Taxpayers paid more than $92 million for them.

Much of the restored land can't be counted as an offset for environmental damage because federal rules now require that restoration sites be near waterways or wetlands damaged by development.

The other 15 surplus sites have a greater percentage of property that has been counted as an offset to development, but they all still include a large number of wetland acres and stream footage that haven't been used. Every acre or section of stream destroyed by development needs to be offset by a restoration of similar or greater size.

The purchases date as far back as 1994. Most of them are in the slow-growing Coastal Plain of Eastern North Carolina.

The asset buildup wasn't intentional. Most of the acreage was bought when federal rules allowed restoration to take place farther away from actual damage. But after the start of the state Ecosystem Enhancement Program, which took control of the sites, federal officials began requiring that restoration be done much closer.

DOT also overestimated its needs for restoration, in part because some road projects were better at limiting on-site damage.

State and federal officials have recently agreed in principle to let DOT put the sites into a bank that is not subject to the rules guiding the restoration program. That would give the state more leeway to use those sites to offset development damage to streams and wetlands farther away.

But circumventing federal rules designed to help protect watersheds affected by development aggravates many who want the restoration even closer to the damage.