The public hearing on a scaled-back proposal to designate Critical Environmental Areas (CEAs) was continued ahead of the June 17 New Paltz Town Council meeting, and those who spoke largely were clear in their desire to not only pass this plan, but expand it back to its original parameters. Most of the commentary flatly rejected the opinions of Planning Board members who feel that developers are already asked to do enough.
When a CEA is designated, it’s a signal to anyone who wishes to plan a large subdivision or construction project — generally, of ten acres or more — that there are environmental features nearby that should be considered. Supporters say that this adds no protection, but simply draws attention to existing environmental laws and the review the Planning Board members are supposed to be doing in any case. It makes that information available to applicants before they have invested heavily in plans that might have to be changed, according to that view. Detractors fear that checking that box on the Environmental Assessment Form (EAF) will lead to a far lengthier, more expensive process for large projects which would discourage developers from even trying. This viewpoint appears to be based on the belief that economic growth is preferred over other considerations.
Town council members discussed how to proceed from this point, with David Brownstein championing the position that the public hearing should be extended to ensure as many people as possible can share their views, and Julie Seyfert-Lillis believing that a vote should be taken. Based on the discussion, a vote to create two CEAs — one for the Shawangunk Ridge and the other for the Plutarch woods — would have failed, with Seyfert-Lillis being the only supporter. Despite the strong request to restore the original six CEAs, four out of five council members would rather just designate the Ridge alone. The argument in favor of this approach is that it would allow Planning Board members to become familiar with the process before revisiting. On the other side, it’s been pointed out that development projects in that area are rare and that the protections in place in code already draw attention to the sensitive environmental features.
Planning Board engineer Andy Willingham’s comments about the difference between this designation and protection were cited frequently by Brownstein. Willingham said at a Planning Board meeting that to an engineer, code is unambiguous and thus preferable. However, supporters of CEAs have frequently observed that this is intended only to draw attention to features that must be reviewed under state law in any case and is not in any way protection. For example, John Gotto — who serves as chair of the town’s Clean Water and Open Space Committee — said that CEAs are “simply a list of things that exist.”
Brownstein, who acts as liaison to the Planning Board, advocated on behalf of slowing down this process of designation in light of six members of that board falling in line with their consultants and coming out against this idea. The council member observed that there are a number of tools available to those Planning Board members to use for environmental study. Brownstein also acknowledged owning a large parcel that falls within the proposed Ridge CEA, and further disclosed that a conservation easement is in place that limits development thereupon, using the word “outed” to describe how that information was revealed in an earlier Hudson Valley One article. The term “outed” has previously been associated with revealing private information about public people, specifically making declarations about the sexual orientation of celebrities. Unlike sexual orientation, land ownership records in Ulster County have been public record since the 1600s.
Another factor complicating the discussion is the idea that protecting areas for non-humans can make it harder for humans to find places to live. As is typical with human problems, it’s those with the least money who are most impacted, whether it’s a question of housing or climate equity. Town Council members are presently leaning toward housing justice over climate justice, as no clear path to address both has emerged.
No vote was taken in light of the prevailing opinions. This public hearing will be continued, but another one will be started to look at approving just the Ridge CEA.