The four members of the New Paltz Town Council who attended their August 5 meeting all agree with designating some portions of the town as critical environmental areas (CEA)’s. They differ on what they believe is the best timing for such declarations, but at the moment it would be impossible to act anyway. Someone needs to fill out the paperwork for the environmental review and draft the resolution. As no one on the board has taken the time to do this, it’s now been referred to the town attorney.
Once a CEA is designated, that fact is flagged whenever a major development project is proposed there. Supporters point out that there’s no actual protection conveyed; it’s intended to make sure Planning Board members don’t miss something important when undertaking the “hard look” that’s mandated under the State Environmental Quality Review act. By making it clear from the beginning that certain sensitive environmental features are present, they reason, developers can be steered toward ideas that won’t result in costly plan revisions.
Not everyone expects that CEAs would be a net gain for developers, however. Six out of seven Planning Board members are cool to the idea because their attorney and their engineer feel it would result in longer, more expensive project reviews. This in part comes from a philosophical difference: engineer Andy Willingham expressed a preference at one meeting that each and every requirement be baked right into the zoning code, because it removes the uncertainty that can come from interpretation. Ingrid Haeckel, who chairs the Environmental Conservation Commission where this proposal originated, appears to think that not everything in the natural world can be reduced to a simple formula.
The opposition of most Planning Board members has given many council members pause. Reasoning that if the people tasked with enforcing the rules aren’t on board that they won’t do a very good job enforcing them at all, Neil Bettez — the town supervisor — is looking to get just one of the original six CEAs on the books as a test case. The one Bettez is pushing for is the Ridge. However, supporters of more scrutiny don’t see how designating an area that’s low on development opportunity and high on actual protection will prove much of anything. Nevertheless, council members David Brownstein and Dan Torres agree that it could increase comfort with the concept generally; Alex Baer was not in attendance at this meeting. Right now, Planning Board members other than Amanda Gotto feel this approach is heavy-handed.
Julie Seyfert-Lillis has consistently supported creating as many CEAs as possible, but stands alone after fighting a rear-guard action against chipping away at this proposal. There are now two hearings open: one on declaring the Ridge a CEA and another for the Ridge and the Plutarch woods. The public testimony at these hearings has been overwhelmingly in favor of authorizing them both, if not all six of the original areas suggested. The other council members present signaled support for adopting more, but not right away. However, there will be no vote taken until someone drafts a resolution and completes the paperwork that’s associated with the necessary environmental review of this law. Bettez said that there is too much on the supervisor’s desk right now, and that it should the taken care of by someone invested in this idea — which appears to be a reference to Seyfert-Lillis. However, Torres instead moved to ask town attorney Joe Moriello to do it instead. Once that task is complete, council members will be able to vote on approving one or two of these areas.