A recent change in how the amount of buildable land in the state’s 20 coastal counties is calculated may go down as one of the briefest water quality efforts in state history.

The short-lived clarification of stormwater-runoff rules, which caught even environmentalists by surprise, lasted only three weeks before pressure from developers in the hot real estate markets just inland from the coast caused a swift retreat.

The story goes like this:

An acceleration of development of the state’s inner banks has pushed development into the lower-lying areas. State water quality engineers, faced with a growing number of stormwater permits, looked for guidance on how to handle sites with significant amounts of wetlands, which are protected waters.

On May 26, the state’s Division of Water Quality issued a new guideline to its engineers saying that wetlands should now be excluded when calculating how much of a parcel is buildable. The change is significant because the state classifies subdivisions with 25 percent or less impervious surfaces as “low density,” which allows developers to build without additional stormwater infrastructure. Taking wetlands out of the equation would change a lot of plans. The problem was that many of them were already in progress.

“We were trying to adjust the policy,” says Tom Reeder, chief of DWQ’s water and stormwater branch. “We went with the simplest way to approach it.” In hindsight, he says, “it would have been more appropriate to go through a rule-making or some other public process.”

Caught off guard, developers were furious.

The ill-fated change just happened to come out as the North Carolina Homebuilders Association was preparing for its members’ annual visit to the legislature. So on Wednesday, June 14, the same day the House held its budget vote, the halls and the galleries were filled with the state’s homebuilders. Some carried a copy of the letter outlining the exclusion of wetlands. They were not happy. Legislators, many of them hearing about the change for the first time, were not happy, either.

So that Friday, after a hurried conference call with the state’s top environmental officials, DWQ issued a memo suspending the change due to “unforeseen and unintended consequences.” DWQ instructed its engineers to go back to reviewing plans on a case-by-case basis. The proposed change will instead undergo a full review by the state’s Environmental Management Commission.

The abrupt suspension highlights how sensitive all sides are in the ongoing negotiations to set a new standard for stormwater runoff in the midst of a mushrooming coastal real estate market.

On Sunday, as part of its continuing series on coastal development, The News & Observer reported that a survey of the state’s 20 coastal counties showed roughly 34,000 homes and condos already planned or under construction.

In March, a group of stakeholders–homebuilders’ representatives, state and local officials, legislators and environmentalists–started meeting to hammer out the implementation of the next phase-in of tighter federal stormwater rules–so called Phase II rules. While plans for the rest of the state are pretty much set, the major sticking point is what to do about the coastal counties, where the state’s 25 percent standard isn’t doing the job.

A recent study by UNC-Wilmington marine science professor Michael Mallin, which includes a study of New Hanover County’s building boom, is an indication of what’s to come. Without tighter standards, the study points to continued degradation of shellfishing and beaches and other public access areas. In an article in this month’s Scientific American, Mallin’s work tracking microbial pollution says a 25 percent rule is set way too high. Ten to 15 percent would be better, he says, especially near shellfish beds.

Armed with such data and a growing list of shellfish water closings, environmentalists say that without tighter rules, development will all but wipe out North Carolina’s shellfishing industry and lead to more beach closures due to fecal bacteria.

A 12 percent standard, which is under consideration, has been the rallying cry. The state Senate may move to adjust the state’s Phase II rules to that standard for the 20 coastal counties as early as this month as part of a larger water quality bill.

With new application rates continuing to surge, though, time is not on the side of anyone concerned about water quality.

Amy Pickle, staff attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, says that while the Phase II agreement is going to be the key to future planning, much of its changes will take years to implement.

Right now, Pickle says, there is a clear rush to develop the coast and the counties just inland, few of which have zoning.

“It’s urgent we do something,” she says, “or we’re going to continue to have this death of a thousand cuts to water quality along the coast.”