Dubuque woman faces prison, fines in wetland violation - KWWL - Eastern Iowa Breaking News, Weather, Closings

Dubuque woman faces prison, fines in wetland violation

Hoot Owl Hollow Campground is on Middle Road, just west of Seippel Road Hoot Owl Hollow Campground is on Middle Road, just west of Seippel Road

A Dubuque businesswoman pleaded guilty in federal court Tuesday to a felony violation of the Clean Water Act for damaging a wetland. This happened while building her business, Hoot Owl Hollow Campground and RV Park in Dubuque.

The campground sits on six to seven acres of land and belongs to 65-year-old Elaine Kelly and her husband Norm Breiner. They built it on their property starting in April of 2009 and opened it in May of 2010.

"We had permits and zoning from the city. We had permits from the DNR," Breiner said. "To the best of our knowledge, we did everything that we were supposed to do."

In the fall of 2009, however, the Army Corps of Engineers and EPA came in and determined 1.8 acres of that land were wetlands near the middle fork of Catfish Creek, which runs through Kelly's property and is a tributary of the Mississippi River.

"We had no idea that the Army Corps of Engineers or the EPA was involved with anything this far way from the river," Breiner said.

The US Attorney's Office charged Kelly with a felony violation of the federal Clean Water Act for knowingly discharging pollutants such as soil, sand and trees into this wetland area.

"I don't think any of it is [a wetland area], but they're saying from this building to right through here," Breiner said, gesturing across the campground. "One-point-eight acres."

On Tuesday, in a plea agreement, Kelly pleaded guilty, though family members said it was to avoid longer and costlier court battles.

"Going to court and fighting the United States Government - we can't afford to do that," Breiner said.

Pete Deegan is a spokesperson for the US Attorney's Office in the Northern District of Iowa. In a phone interview Wednesday, he said the conviction carries a fine of $5,000 to up to $50,000 per day of the violation plus a maximum sentence of three years in prison.

Federal prosecutor Forde Fairchild said sentencing guidelines will likely recommend a prison sentence of eight to 14 months for Kelly.

"It's very extreme," Breiner said. "I mean, I've never heard of anybody going to prison for building a park."

Now, Kelly waits for her sentencing date, which Deegan said will be set after the pre-sentence investigation.

"Less than two acres," Breiner marveled. "You'd swear we tore up 500 acres of swamp or something."

Breiner said the couple paid for three separate soil studies and thought there wasn't a problem.

"We're just everyday working people. I don't have a degree in engineering or anything. You pay people to do that, and that's what we did," Breiner said. "As far as we were concerned, everything was fine. We totally, strictly went - as far as we knew - by the book."

According to investigators, Kelly ignored orders from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to halt construction for a wetland impact study.

"It wouldn't make any sense for us to try to do something illegal," Breiner said. "We've invested everything we've worked our whole lives for into this."

Hoot Owl Hollow Campground and RV Park is expected to open for the season on April 1, Breiner said.

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