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On Dec. 18 the State Department of Environmental Conservation will be holding public hearings in Lockport on proposed changes in their regulations for protecting undeveloped land throughout New York State by classifying it as wetlands.

It is a hearing property owners throughout the Niagara Frontier should attend. Plain and simple, proposed DEC changes could have a wide ranging impact, affecting scores of property owners and home owners as well as many of our towns and villages, now and well into the future.

Before we look at the issue more closely, let me state emphatically, that I am in favor of wetlands protection. We have a duty to preserve the environment for our children and our grandchildren and to pass onto them a lush, viable landscape rather than a barren wasteland. Indeed, a sensible policy is necessary to protect undeveloped wetlands from being ravaged by aggressive, insensitive developers.

But proposed DEC changes raise many questions, which, so far, have yet to be answered satisfactorily. Every citizen should be concerned.

DEC is proposing that it's definition for wetlands fall in line with federal guidelines. The problem is that President Bush's new "no net loss" policy for undeveloped land in the United States is still being debated and criticized.

In fact, a number of lawsuits are now pending against the federal government, and The White Domestic Policy Council is now discussing what "no net loss" means for protecting undeveloped land. But so far no clear definition has been determined.

In short, although the federal policy in Washington for protecting wetlands is still up in the air raising many unsettling questions, the Department of Environmental Conservation in Albany wants to adopt it for New York State.

DEC says its proposed changes are "minor," but the fact is that if put in place nearly twice as much land will become protected and some sixty to seventy percent of all the undeveloped land in New York State would be subject to regulation -- much of it near communities where growth may in time be desirable and beneficial.

Responsible planners and developers throughout the state are deeply concerned because the proposed DEC's changes raise many complex questions: Will some communities lose businesses and jobs if their future growth is stifled? Will their tax base be reduced? And what about individual property owners? How will their real estate values be affected? Will your land be useless after the DEC changes go into effect?

Or will you be able to build on property set aside for a retirement residence or add a building, such as a small shed, without undo state interference? What about grandfather clauses? What exemptions will they allow for individual property owners, if any?

These are just a few of the many questions that need full explanation, but what makes this issue all the more vexing and perplexing, in addition, to the many unanswered questions, is the fact that New York state currently has a sound, sensible policy for protecting undeveloped land, the Freshwater Wetlands Act, which was passed by the state legislature in 1975 after extensive debate.

Many experts agree it provides a more than adequate, comprehensive program for protecting and regulating the use of wetlands while promoting the general welfare and beneficial economic, social, and agricultural development of New York state.

The Freshwater Wetlands Act provides a clear, coherent program for regulation and protection. Proposed DEC changes do not.

Many astute experts and observers feel that not only are DEC changes premature, but in proposing them the agency is trying to go beyond its legal authority. In other words, the people of New York State through its elected representatives should determine policy for protecting the environment, not a bureaucracy that wants to tinker with a fair and equitable policy that works fine.

As I said, it is a complicated and important issue, one that could drastically affect farmers, small residential property owners, developers, and many towns and communities and municipal planners.

The public hearings on the 18th will be held at 1 p.m. and again a 7 p.m. at the Farm and Home Center on Route 78 just north of Lockport. If you have time, try to attend. It may be your land that is ultimately affected.

Thomas Barillari is president of First Elmwood Management Corp., and a partner in the Sable Land Co.

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