Wetlands - What You Need to Know BEFORE Buying, Selling or Developing Your Next Piece of Real Estate

The demand for prime commercial real estate is at an all time high. As a result, the volume of good quality commercial sites is shrinking and more questionable properties are coming onto the market. What are the risks associated with these properties? Are there wetlands on site? Do you know what wetlands look like? You may be surprised to learn that wetlands may exist on almost any property and are not always obvious. So before you commit to buying, selling or developing your next piece of real estate, here are a few tips to help you address this all important issue.

First, hire a qualified wetlands consultant to walk the property, check background references and give you an initial opinion. The consultant will study plant species, soil types and hydrology and search for previous permits or violations on the property. The cost for this initial opinion is minimal.

If no wetlands exist, get it documented in writing and your site is free and clear. If wetlands are present, have the consultant delineate the exact boundaries, then get the area surveyed and mapped. This can be done by a licensed land surveyor in conjunction with a boundary or topographic survey. Costs for these efforts (delineation and survey) vary depending upon the acreage and extent of wetlands.

Even if your site has wetlands, you may still be able to develop it. Civil engineers and land planners can design innovative features into a project which address wetlands impacts while maintaining the commercial value of the lot. The Lakes Region Factory Outlet Mall in Tilton, New Hampshire has a stormwater detention pond near the entrance that doubles as a wetland mitigation area. With 3 acres of wetlands being filled in order to develop the mall, mitigating wetland areas were created within the pond. Other mitigating strategies included construction of wood retaining walls to maintain an existing marsh areas behind the mall site. A third feature of the wetlands mitigation program was off-site land banking. A nearby parcel with existing wetlands was purchased and the wetlands preserved by imposing deed covenants on the property. All of these techniques maximized buildable area of the site while effectively mitigating the wetland areas.

Think wetlands are a small matter in New Hampshire? Think again. The state processes between 2,000 and 2,500 wetlands dredge & fill permits each year. The different types of permits and approximate review times are shown in the accompanying table. Long review times and in some cases, application denials, are the main reason to get your wetlands checked out before you commit to buying, selling or developing your next piece of real estate.

Wetlands and the permitting process
What is a wetland? A wetland could be a river, a brook, an intermittent stream, a pond or lake, forested or shrub areas, marshes, tidal areas and waters.

What type of permit do you need?

Type of Permit Area Affected* Approx. Review Time
Minimum expedited** less than 3,000 square feet (sf) 30 days
Minimum impact less than 3,000 sf 30-90 days
Minor impact 3,000sf - 19,999 sf 60-180 days
Major impact 20,000 sf and more 90-360 days

* other factors in addition to the square footages shown may elevate a permit into a higher category, such as public waters, shoreline or stream length, prime wetlands and previous permits.

** minimum expedited also requires sign-off by the town conservation commission. For additional information, visit the New Hampshire Wetlands Bureau web site at www.state.nh.us/des or call 271-2147.