Effectiveness—Not Expediency—Key to SEQRA

Wednesday, July 10, 2013 -- Scenic Hudson

The State Environmental Quality Review Act, or SEQRA, has done more to protect what people cherish most about their communities than any other law.

SEQRA is New York's seminal law for ensuring that environmental impacts of proposed developments are subject to careful public review, that environmental and economic goals are balanced, and that unavoidable impacts are mitigated. Many projects have benefited from SEQRA reviews, with adverse impacts eliminated or reduced and site design improved as a result of thoughtful public input.

Recently, the NYS DEC has proposed "streamlining" SEQRA regulations. While the draft includes some constructive ideas—and it's a laudable goal to modify a process, largely unchanged for 20 years, to improve its efficiency and effectiveness—many of the DEC's proposed amendments could sacrifice meaningful environmental review simply for the sake of expediency.

Fortunately, a coalition of environmental organizations has banded together to question many of the proposed amendments and urge the DEC to preserve and improve the vital environmental protections that SEQRA offers. Scenic Hudson is working with groups including Riverkeeper, Clearwater, NYPIRG, Environmental Advocates of New York and Catskill Mountainkeeper to ensure that in striving for efficiency, DEC doesn't inadvertently the primary purpose of SEQRA—to incorporate serious consideration of environmental factors into the planning, review and decision-making processes of state, regional and local government agencies.

While developers have been pressuring the DEC to ease environmental regulation in the name of economic prosperity, the environmental groups have stressed that environmental protection and economic development are not mutually exclusive, and that protecting New York's natural, historic and scenic resources enhances the economic value of communities. Heritage- and recreation-based tourism are important drivers of state, regional and local economies, and are made more viable by maintaining the small-town character of many of the state's communities and the context of its world-renowned natural and historic sites.

One of the most troubling aspects of the draft SEQRA amendments is a proposal to dramatically expand the list of actions requiring no SEQRA review at all. Depending on a municipality's population or zoning laws, the expanded exempt list could include projects as large as 40,000 square feet; subdivisions spanning up to 10 acres; and the sale, auction, lease or transfer of public land. While the overall intention of the new SEQRA amendments is to encourage development in urban areas—which Scenic Hudson supports—the increased exemptions actually could exacerbate sprawling development, especially in larger municipalities lacking densely populated centers, such as the Town of Poughkeepsie. In these communities, projects proposed in environmentally sensitive areas or adjacent to historic sites now could escape environmental review altogether.

The proposed amendments also undermine the goals and intent of SEQRA by placing a one-size-fits-all time limit on the review process. Under the new draft regulations, the clock will start ticking once a lead review agency, typically a municipal planning board, accepts the draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). From that moment, the agency has 180 days to prepare a final EIS detailing the mitigating actions that must be taken for the project to proceed. At the end of that time, the review will come to a halt, with the EIS deemed complete whether it's finished or not.

For many projects, 180 days is sufficient. But for complex developments, this arbitrary time limit will result in inadequate reviews, especially in small communities that rely on volunteer planning boards. It also means developers may be disinclined to provide full and accurate information in a timely manner—as a way of hampering the lead agency's ability to render a proper environmental-impact determination before the 180-day cutoff.

Finally, the DEC could miss the opportunity to enhance current SEQRA regulations that fail to address the cumulative impact of several small projects located adjacent to one another in environmentally sensitive areas. Individually, these developments may pose little threat and breeze through the SEQRA process. But together, they could devastate a fragile ecosystem or a rural hamlet.

In striving to create a more efficient SEQRA review process, the DEC has a unique opportunity to strengthen, rather than undermine, its effectiveness. As it was intended, SEQRA must remain a potent tool for shaping projects so they benefit communities and developers alike.

Visit this page for more information about navigating New York's SEQRA law.