The Woodstock Environmental Commission (WEC) presented the Town Board with the idea of recognizing 3.5 square miles of land in Zena as environmentally sensitive, but land owners protested, saying said such a designation will keep them from selling or developing their property.
“It’s a geographic area that has exceptional or unique environmental characteristics. Those could include fish and wildlife habitat forests for vegetation, open spaces that benefit human health, and areas of important aesthetic or scenic quality,” WEC Chair Alex Bolotow said at a March 8 information session hosted by the Town Board. “New York State law authorizes municipalities to designate CEAs (Critical Environmental Areas) within their boundaries to bring awareness to places that deserve special attention in the course of land use planning, regulatory review of certain development projects and decisions about development and conservation,” she continued. “The proposed CEA would further the town goals that were set forth in the Comprehensive Plan. Those were strengthening protections for natural resources, reducing habitat fragmentation, and promoting conservation of Lands and Water for climate resilience,” she said. “The Zena Woods area is particularly rich and core forests and shrub lands, meadows, forested swamps, vernal pools, small streams, and other wetlands. And it also contains a portion of the Sawkill (Creek).”
But Jeff DeLisio, who owns 95 acres within the proposed CEA, questions the need. He shared the information with a forester, biologist, environmental lawyer and real estate lawyer. “And the question they all had is why, with less than 200 CEAs and strong zoning laws already in Woodstock, would we have to put a CEA in place…because the things that came up with this and in reviewing the reports, are not that unique to all the property and Zena including the properties where they’re developed,” DeLisio said. “It’s a wide open slate for any one of those elements in the CEA to stop somebody’s development or enjoyment of the property.”
Bolotow said the CEA is meant to be a guideline, not a regulation. “At the end of the day, the CEA is really an educational tool. So it’s a tool that alerts someone like the Planning Board to the specific features in the area,” she said. “It’s not going to stop development. It doesn’t have the legal grounds to do anything like that. It will let people know what specifically is there, why it’s important and give them a heads-up to take it into consideration.”
Planning Board member Judith Kerman said the Planning and Town boards have turnover and a CEA will provide guidance. “In a lot of ways, I have seen evidence of a problem with institutional memory. The creation of a CEA puts it on the ground, that 20 years from now, members of the Planning Board who may still be in diapers, for all I know, know that they need to pay attention in the same way that we know now,” she said. “It keeps a focus in an area that really deserves the focus.”
But DeLisio countered it will cause more issues.
“That’s great, but I’m looking at the practical world. In the practical world, what you’re going to do is you’re going to exacerbate your housing issue,” he said. “I’ve got four lots down there, and as opposed to putting a couple houses on each lot, or even developing some affordable housing down there,” he said. “It’s going to all go to the highest bidder, the folks with the most money, the folks who are going to put one house per lot, which they can do without even a SEQR (State Environmental Quality Review). It’s going to keep it private. It’ll never be public. Most of the land you talked about is private…So what you’re actually doing is you’re telling me that the best way to develop that property is to have millionaire after millionaire move in, put large houses, put big fences around it, and make the property even more private than it is today.”
Jeff Collins, who owns the land on which the Sudbury School sits, said the school had to go through a very thorough process to get built. “That process to me is very complete and ensured that we did everything exactly correctly. So my question to you is, how would that have been different if the CEA had been in place?” he asked. “If the Sudbury school decides to build a soccer field in there, what happens? Can they do that? What’s the process they have to go through if there’s a CEA versus if there’s not a CEA?”
He also asked about the process if the school wanted to build a new 5000-square-foot building. “We’re all here because we want to protect the environment. The question is how best to do that, while also allowing for people to use their land and for people to be able to build housing that we need desperately, too,” Collins said. “And I think that’s really the intention of the Housing Oversight Task Force that I’m a part of, and that’s why I believe that should go first.”
Supervisor Bill McKenna said it was a good information session. He suggested another public meeting in May at the Zena Firehouse. That date is to be determined.
The WEC and Town Board plans to continue discussion and possibly vote on the CEA in June.