EXMORE, Va. (Delmarva Now) -- A Virginia landowner could face significant fines and jail time after upending several acres of local wetlands.
Benjamin Mathai of Manassas, Virginia, was found guilty of unpermitted encroachment into Northampton County’s Resource Protection Area, use of wetlands without a permit and unpermitted land disturbing activity in Northampton District Court on June 8.
The court ruled the activity on Mathai’s land disturbed three environmentally sensitive areas — tidal wetlands, non-tidal wetlands and the Chesapeake Bay Resource Protection Area — and sentenced Mathai to 12 months, with 11 months and 10 days suspended, and five years of probation.
Mathai appealed the conviction and is slated to appear for a new trial in Northampton Circuit Court on Sept. 11.
Mathai’s attorney, Adam Carroll, deferred to the county’s Wetlands Board’s decision in describing the extent of the damage.
“I’ve handled plenty of wetlands cases. The barometer that I usually use is the Wetlands Board and they gave it a rating on their scale” of a $0 to $10,000 fine, he said.
“The wetlands board people who do this stuff day in and day out gave it $7,500” in fines, Carroll said.
The Northampton County Wetlands Board began investigating Mathai’s property last September after receiving a tip there was environmental damage at his 2281 Old Neck Road property in Exmore.
Expecting a routine violation, workers found more than 3 acres of his property clear cut, court records show.
“The ground was fairly beat up, but the most dramatic thing is the trees that were down,” said Northampton County Commonwealth’s Attorney Bruce Jones, who prosecuted the case. “It was pretty much fully wooded and I think there was one tree left at the end.”
According to a statement by Northampton County Planning and Zoning’s Development Inspector and complainant in the case Kelley Parks, Mathai “or his agents cut numerous trees within the wetlands, created numerous debris piles within the wetlands, and thus destroyed wetland vegetation and altered the contour of the wetlands without first obtaining a permit.”
Mathai’s contractor used manual labor, chain saws and heavy equipment to remove dirt, grass and a stand of old-growth loblolly pine trees on about 3.5 acres, records show.
Neither Mathai or the company had a permit for the work.
“He claims his agent did the work without his knowledge,” Parks said in a statement, though two eyewitnesses placed Mathai on the scene during the violations, she said.
According to Wetlands Board meeting records, Mathai said he had a verbal contract with his contractor. He returned home one day to find the contractor missing and was unable to reach him via cellphone, Mathai said.
The two had no contact after that, he said.
Mathai apologized to the Wetlands Board during a December meeting, saying, “What I had intended to do and what has happened is completely different.”
Board member Bob Meyers, however, said he was “very surprised” Mathai “didn’t seem interested in exploring what the requirements were for clearing property along waterfront.”
He went on to cite more than 50 years of environmental damage from the work on Mathai’s property.
Just a few miles north of Silver Beach, Mathai’s land is home to both tidal and non-tidal wetlands, part of Virginia’s Resource Protection Area established by the Chesapeake Bay Preservation Act.
Wetlands are important features of the local landscape, protecting and improving water quality, providing habitat for fish and wildlife, sheltering against floodwaters and maintaining surface water flow during dry spells, according to the EPA website.
“The health of the Chesapeake Bay and Atlantic Ocean is vital to maintaining Northampton County’s economy and the welfare of its citizens,” the Northampton County Code of Ordinance’s Chesapeake/Atlantic Preservation Areas chapter reads.
It goes on to call these waters “degraded significantly,” charging the Northampton County Board of Supervisors with protecting existing high-quality water, restoring impaired waters and safeguarding waterways against pollution within the Chesapeake / Atlantic Preservation Areas.
Some say the case sends an important message to potential polluters on the Eastern Shore.
“It sends a clear message that attacks on our natural resources will be aggressively prosecuted in Northampton County,” said Jay Ford, executive director of Virginia Eastern Shore Shorekeeper.
“This case will certainly make people think twice before harming our coasts,” Ford said.
Council representing Mathai and his contractor appeared before the Wetlands Board last year.
The board determined Mathai must remove the debris, which was almost completed by his June 8 court appearance, Carroll said, and must implement a restoration plan based on an environmental site assessment by J.W. Salm Engineering.
That plan includes replanting native vegetation and five years of monitoring with written reports and photographs, which attorneys said Mathai agreed to fund.
If the property changes hands during the restoration, the plan will transfer along with the deed, records show.
Jones characterized Mathai as “cooperative” in the restoration process.
Mathai had no prior criminal record. He is slated to appear for a new trial in Northampton Circuit Court on Sept. 11.
He noted in his intention to appeal that no Northampton staff members other than Jones should be contacted regarding the case, said Spencer Murray of the Northampton County Board of Supervisors.