After the proposal was pared back several times, a public hearing on Critical Environmental Areas was opened at the New Paltz Town Board meeting on May 20. These areas, if designated, will serve as formal notification that there are qualities of environmental concern which should be considered when large projects within are brought before the Planning Board. It would result in a box being checked on the State Environmental Assessment Form, which would signal to Planning Board members that they should think about that larger area rather than focusing solely on what is proposed for the specific property. Theoretically, that’s what Planning Board members are always expected to do. The two areas under consideration are the Shawangunk Ridge and the Plutarch woods, which have a similar amount of quality non-human habitat that would be seriously compromised by any level of fragmentation.
Planning Board member Jane Schanberg spoke for six of the seven on that board, using the oxymoron “majority consensus” while conveying concerns that it would add more time and money to a review process that developers often find prohibitive already. This economics-first argument is supported by the board’s attorney and engineer.
Repeating a message that’s been articulated in detail multiple times, Environmental Conservation Board chair Ingrid Haeckel explained that a CEA designation creates no protection whatsoever, but instead alerts developers and Planning Board members alike to potential issues. Signaling those concerns before an application is filed could save a developer time and money because if they are raised by members of the public, once a lot has been invested in the plans then it can be much more costly to unwind. Haeckel said that the main difference between the Ridge and the woods is that the Ridge is already heavily protected and unlikely to receive many applications, but the woods around Plutarch Road have no protection whatsoever and could easily be developed at any time without Planning Board members necessarily being aware of the environmental issues. These are among the most important natural habitats in the county. Haeckel further reinforced that only projects designated Type 1 or unlisted under state rules would be impacted, which in effect means tracts of more than ten acres, along with subdivisions.
There was not much in the way of public testimony at the hearing, and board members agreed to hold it open to allow for more. Town Council member David Brownstein, however, expressed strong opposition to the potential cost. Brownstein owns more than 36 acres of land that appears to fall within the proposed Shawangunk Ridge CEA, but did not disclose this during the meeting. That information was gathered from county records. Later in the meeting, when it was time to discuss an unrelated issue regarding improving the public water supply by drilling wells at the edge of the Mohonk Preserve, Brownstein explicitly sought to tie the two issues together. The council member reasoned that it appeared inconsistent to allow for village officials to undertake this work without a review via the town Planning Board, and also to approve Critical Environmental Areas. Closing on 10 o’clock at night, Village Mayor Tim Rogers was forced to appear to explain that this project — some four years in the making, in close concert with Town Board members — is to the benefit of a great many town residents, including those who also live in the village.
Brownstein’s colleagues successfully explained that as state law provides for ways to avoid officials of one government reviewing the work of another for the sake of avoiding the cost to taxpayers, and since the firehouse project was quite similar and was approved without issue, that permission to purchase this land without undergoing a review of the revised lot line should be seen as beneficial to the entire community. This involves waiving of a review of steep slopes on land Rogers said is nearly flat and a further waiving of the town’s clearing and grading rules in a spot where an access road already exists.