ATKINSON — Maggie Osborn has had state inspectors at her Valcat Lane home three times since she started construction last year.

The Department of Environmental Services has come to make sure she didn't violate shoreland protection laws by cutting down too many trees and letting silt wash into Big Island Pond during construction.

"We've been targeted for everything," she said.

Osborn said she doesn't know who filed the complaints and so far she hasn't heard she's broken any laws.

But Osborn is in the minority.

Linda Magoon, supervisor of the Wetlands Bureau at DES, said the majority of the 300 to 400 complaints they receive each year result in a violation.

That number has remained consistent for at least the last five years, despite strengthened shoreland protection laws that went into effect in July 2008.

"It may have resulted in an increase in violations," Magoon said.

She said her office is driven by the number of complaints they receive from residents and municipal governments.

"We rely on the public to submit complaint forms if they see a violation," Magoon said.

With 859 shoreland permits issued in the last year and a half, and more than 2,000 wetland permits issued annually, Magoon said, it's impossible to get to every site.

Starting in July 2008, any construction and excavation work done within 250 feet of the shore needs a permit.

If DES receives a complaint, the department sends a letter to the responsible party. One of eight DES inspectors will follow up with a visit to the site of the alleged violation.

Severe violations that have long-term environmental effects, including those that would affect the water quality of a lake, are visited within days. Lesser violations can take a bit longer to clear up.

A complaint that someone moved a dock or resurfaced a retaining wall two years ago might not get a visit for a few weeks, Magoon said.

In October, a Salem man agreed to pay a $25,000 fine for structures built on his Arlington Pond property that violated shoreland protection laws.

Michael Pantaleo of 20 Glen Road was cited after an inspection of the property in October 2006, when DES officials found a retaining wall, dock, large stone patio, fire pit, stairway and other structures all within the zone protected by the act and built without authorization, according to court documents.

Penalties for violations vary. In serious cases, the state Attorney General's Office will take the homeowner to court. There, they might receive a fine of $10,000 per day per violation.

But it's more common that DES would work with the homeowner to correct the problem and send them notice of an administrative fine, Magoon said.

That's what happened to Atkinson homeowner John Mason, who built a deck on his home that violated state wetland protection laws. The town has been battling Mason in court, and DES sent him an administrative order in September demanding he tear the deck down.

Mason filed a letter last week indicating he would appear in court in response to the town's lawsuit against him.

DES is allowed under state law to administer a $2,000 fine for wetlands violations and $5,000 for shoreland violations.

Magoon said DES allows homeowners to negotiate fines with them based on the severity of the violation, how cooperative they are and the economic benefit the homeowner gains from the violation.

"The penalty and what our enforcement is depends on a variety of factors," Magoon said.

But it can take a while to get to the point of any fine or penalty.

Shoreland cases often involve a lot of background research and can take time to resolve. Calls to the town to review building plans, site visits, and interviews with witnesses and neighbors can take months to determine whether the violator should be punished.

Two inspectors are dedicated to shoreland protection violations and six dedicated to wetlands permitting violations. But all inspectors are trained to spot all types of violations.

The second shoreland protection inspector is a new position this year and Magoon said it was a desperately needed addition to her team.

The caseload for all investigators is between 800 and 1,000 violations, according to Magoon.

"Obviously, he wasn't getting to everything," Magoon said.

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