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Another Voice: Don't weaken environmental review process

By Lynda Schneekloth

The Department of Environmental Conservation is proposing changes to the State Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQRA), a process for getting comprehensive information on proposed projects. SEQRA is important because it “requires all state and local government agencies to consider environmental impacts equally with social and economic factors during discretionary decision-making.”

This law, when properly enforced, ensures community participation in determining a project’s impact. It provides legal standing for citizens if, for example, a developer wants to build a housing project in an already dense neighborhood or proposes cutting down a local forest for a shopping mall.

In Buffalo, a project is presented to the Planning Board to explain what it is and why it is a “good” project. Developers do an “environmental assessment” that includes information on how the project might impact the surrounding area.

The Planning Board has a choice between a “negative declaration” – saying this project is a Type II and will have no negative impact, or a “positive declaration” – a Type I, requiring the developer to do an environmental impact statement (EIS) to learn more.

The EIS is very important because it helps all parties make good decisions. It specifically requires additional and scientifically based information such as: 1.) in-depth research about environmental and social issues – sewer capacity, sun angle impacts, affordability or the existence of a locally threatened species; 2.) evaluation of cumulative impacts – how many housing projects are planned for this neighborhood and the impacts on traffic and parking; and 3.) consideration of alternatives to the proposed project – including what would be the advantages of not doing it at all.

No doubt many projects greatly enhance neighborhoods, but they can as easily cause harm to the patterns of community life. Without the kind of analysis required in an EIS, proposals are by nature promotional. Without an EIS, citizens’ only avenue of action is to mount a public campaign against the project, often with the lack of good information.

It is to everyone’s benefit to make investments that benefit communities, and one would expect the city to require an EIS frequently. But in fact, in 2016, there were only two in all of Erie and Niagara counties.

The DEC proposes to “streamline” the process by putting time limits on the scoping process that identifies what has to be researched and moving more actions into the “negative declaration” Type II category that does not require an EIS.

Citizens need a robust SEQRA! Tell the DEC to not make the proposed changes and, instead, encourage municipalities to use the Type I EIS more often. Contact James Eldred, DEC environmental analyst, at SEQRA617@dec.ny.gov by May 19 so that cities can make better development decisions and citizens can protect local and regional natural and cultural resources.

Lynda Schneekloth is chairwoman of the Sierra Club Niagara Group.

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