The number of critical environmental areas that would be named in a proposed town law in New Paltz has been cut back from six to four, with unprotected acreage to be designated representing less than 18 percent of the town’s total area. CEAs are a tool that, when implemented, signals that there’s aspects of a site that warrant a close look during the environmental review of any proposed changes. For the most part, this would happen as part of an application before the planning board, some of whom were concerned about imposing the inconvenience and additional expense upon applicants in large swaths of the town, which in part prompted the reduction in the present scope. Other planning-board members see this as a way to signal to developers that issues exist even before an application is filed, which might save time and money because addressing those concerns would be part of the initial plans rather than introduced via multiple iterations as the result of community pressure.
Environmental conservation board chair Ingrid Haeckel explained that when first conceived in the 1980s, CEAs were typically used to designate a feature that was unique or exceedingly rare, but scientific knowledge nearly a half-century later supports flagging large areas of habitat that have not been chipped away, as well as corridors along which wildlife still can safely migrate. New Paltz has quite a bit of area that is important in the wider scope of conservation. Haeckel explained that many of the areas proposed have already been acknowledged as environmentally significant at the state or national level.
By designating critical environmental areas, the town board would address a common concern among environmentalists that state planning laws force them to focus on individual projects, rather than plan on a regional level. Projects within and adjacent to a CEA would have to be reviewed with an eye to minimizing additional human-caused harm to dwindling natural habitat.
The scaled-back proposal focuses on the Shawangunk Ridge, Wallkill corridor, Plutarch and Clearwater woods and wetlands. Most of the referenced area is already regulated (such as wetlands) or protected (for example, the ridge), which is why the percentage of land in the town where applicants may experience a more thorough review is only 3661 acres. Haeckel signaled an interest in revisiting the Stony Kill and Swartekill area until a future time.
Reducing the number of CEAs appeared to be received well by the town board. Input from planning board will be sought.