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WETLANDS ISSUE CALLS FOR PUBLIC VOICE AT PUBLIC HEARING

With concern for environmental issues on the rise nation wide, people are becoming more aware of the problems we face with regard to waste management, water quality, preservation, etc., and looking for solutions to these problems.

When George Bush was campaigning for the presidency in 1988, one of the environmental goals he addressed directly was the concept of "no net loss" of wetlands. Because of this campaign pledge and a new wetland delineation manual published by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in March of 1989, wetlands have become a priority issue.

Back in the 1950s and 1960s it was state policy to allow the filing and spraying of New York's wetlands in response to the housing pressures of the "baby boom" and government agencies concerned about prevention of diseases like encephalitis, carried by mosquitoes.

In 1975, after extended debate among legislators, environmentalists, farmers, the development community, utility representatives and others, the Legislature adopted the Freshwater Wetlands Act. This is a comprehensive program for protecting and regulating the "use and development of wetlands to secure the natural benefits of freshwater wetlands, consistent with the general welfare and beneficial economic, social and agricultural development of the State," as stated in the policy section of the Freshwater Wetlands Act.

The program called for wetlands to be mapped and classified, and for permits to be issued for the use of mapped wetlands only if such use would not interfere significantly with the wetlands' values being protected, such as wildlife habitat, drainage functions and others.

The program gave government the ability to protect valuable resources without preventing beneficial economic activity. It made it clear which lands were regulated so that owners and developers could make reasonable investment decisions with the reliability necessary for sustained economic growth.

We have come a long way since the 1950s in our knowledge and protection of the environment. Wetlands are respected for their ecological benefits, and residents of New York State have lived within the state wetlands legislation for the past 15 years.

In July of 1989, the Freshwater Wetlands Advisory Committee, a group appointed by Governor Cuomo, came out with a report on New York's wetland protection policy. As a result of this report, Governor Cuomo submitted a wetlands bill to the Legislature in April of 1990, which incorporated some of the Committee's suggestions. The legislature did not act on this proposal.

Since that time, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation has proposed its own changes to the state wetland program. According to the Draft Environmental Impact Statement prepared by the DEC, these are "minor" changes. But by tinkering in "minor" ways with a comprehensive, well considered program, DEC has created a potential nightmare for property owners, town governments, farmers, developers and anyone else concerned about the use of land.

These "minor" changes will result in large percentages of land in Erie and Niagara County being included in the program. Much of this land has marginal wetlands value. Much of it is wetlands only because of the overly broad definitions and mapping procedures proposed by the DEC. The DEC has created a new definition of wetlands that neither nature nor the State Legislature ever intended.

The new policy of "no net loss" proposed by the DEC will dramatically alter the permit process by reducing the number and types of permitted activities.

If the proposed changes are approved, the price of remaining non-wetland property would skyrocket, burdening new home buyers as land values rise. This could mean an end to any possibility of affordable housing here in Western New York.

If the DEC had stated a strong case for these changes are approved, they might be worth our consideration, but it has not. The DEIS provides no factual or analytical basis for these proposals. It presumes that more (protected lands) is better without explaining why. Furthermore, many of the proposed changes, including "no net loss" are not provided for in the statue. DEC needs to go to the legislature for authority to make these changes.

At the first hearing held on these changes in Lockport on October 16, a DEC representative told the more than 300 people in attendance that they did not understand what DEC was trying to do. In fact, the gathered farmers, local government officials, property owners, and builders understand much better than the DEC the repercussions of these actions on their lives and livelihoods.

There is no question that wetlands should be protected. The New York State Legislature has provided the means to do so. But, the methods of the DEC will result in the loss of businesses and jobs, a reduction of the tax base (both property and income) and the taking of private property without just compensation without a substantial increase in the protection of valuable resources.

Please plan to voice your concerns by attending the public hearing on December 18 at the Farm and Home Center, 4487 Lake Avenue, Lockport, at 1 p.m. and 7 p.m. Tell the DEC these are matters for the legislature to decide.

If you have any questions on this issue, please contact the NFBA office at 636-9655.

This article was provided by David A. Brody and Jeffrey D. Palumbo, local attorneys and members of the Niagara Frontier Builders' Association Industry Task Force Committee.

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