The chair of the Town of New Paltz’s Environmental Conservation Board (EnCB) has again retreated from an effort that would signal when proposals brought before the planning board might end up getting additional scrutiny due to particular environmental features. A law to designate several “Critical Environmental Areas” (CEA) that originally covered most of the unique habitats in the town has been winnowed down to one which is arguably already unambiguously sensitive, the Shawangunk Ridge. EnCB chair Ingrid Haeckel made the decision, according to town council member David Brownstein, after all but one member of the planning board were “unmoved” by explanations about the advantages of this process to ensuring that environmental impacts of any development are considered early on in the process. Similarly, only one member of the elected board — Julie Seyfert Lillis — remains interested in moving ahead with the full proposal.
When a CEA is recognized in town law, projects inside that area are flagged during the environmental review process to signal to planning board members that there are known natural features that should be considered when evaluating impacts. The arguments in support and against this change both largely hinge on the perception that it’s always a long and expensive process to get projects approved in New Paltz and the belief that this impedes a certain definition of progress. Supporters note that New Paltz has a great deal of engaged residents who will often come out in force if a development scheme appears to run afoul of their vision for the town; if a project proposal is inside a CEA, a potential developer would know even before applying that there are issues that should be considered when creating the first set of plans. If those same issues are raised later in the process, the result is more time redoing plans to mitigate them.
Most planning board members — as well as the board’s attorney and engineer — see this as something which would only add expense, not reduce it. It’s a reason to require more studies early on and that means more cost. Attorney Rick Golden hasn’t seen CEAs used this broadly in the past and firmly believes it would cause delays for more applicants in the long run. Engineer Andy Willingham is uncomfortable with relying on the judgment of planning board members, rather than tying their hands with unambiguous rules baked right into the zoning code. Most board members take that alarm seriously, often suggesting that CEAs are redundant if there is some sort of protection in place, such as the laws governing development in wetlands or on steep slopes. Planning board member Amanda Gotto has said on several occasions the likening this designation to a form of “protection” is a misunderstanding of how these areas factor into state environmental law.
Seyfert-Lillis raised many of the same concerns to colleagues on the town council that Gotto raised during planning board discussions, when focusing on the Ridge alone was also proposed. It’s well understood that the Shawangunk Ridge is a sensitive area, Seyfert-Lillis said, and the point of a CEA is to bring out information that might otherwise be overlooked until later. Supervisor Neil Bettez prefers this option in part because it might allow planning board members to become comfortable with how CEAs work; otherwise, they might not enforce the rules and thus there won’t be any benefit regardless. It’s true that a planning board is independent, and the only recourse for members of the town council is to replace members as their terms expire. That’s precisely what happened to some planning board members who voted against requiring an environmental impact statement for the Trans-Hudson project near the Thruway. Seyfert-Lillis pointed out that the Ridge area is already protected such that development proposals are quite uncommon, meaning that it could be a long time before there’s any such project before the planning board at all.
Additionally, Seyfert-Lillis pointed out that Haeckel has been the force behind this idea and that there is no guarantee that this force would still be present on the EnCB in a year or two to try again. The town board member didn’t accept engineer Willingham’s discomfiture as valid, either: there are many gray areas in the environmental review process, Seyfert-Lillis pointed out, such as the section about considering if a project is compatible with community character. It’s true that when residents speak in opposition to a given project, they almost always question compatibility with community character as part of their concerns.
David Brownstein laid out a pragmatic argument for simplifying this idea: to “go big” might occupy board members for some time, and Brownstein would rather use the coming months to focus on issues around racial equity and police relations. If the original CEA proposal were to go forward, Brownstein’s preference would be to notify all affected property owners by mail. The prediction Brownstein made was that many people would perceive this as a form of protection that would impact property values. Seyfert-Lillis expressed support for such a mailing, but no one suggested that it might include or be accompanied by a public information campaign to address those concerns.