Environmental law begins in N.Y. this week
February 26, 2006
By Dan Shapley
If a new housing development is built, will it clog your street with traffic or make your well run dry? Will a new smokestack be ugly — and exactly what will spew out of it?
As of this week, it should be easier for people to answer those types of questions, at any hour of the day from the comfort of their homes. A new state law requires all environmental impact statements be accessible on the Internet.
The state Environmental Quality Review Act, known as SEQRA, defines the review process, and gives the public its single-greatest opportunity to influence projects considered by government.
As part of the review process, environmental impact statements must be prepared before approval of most projects, government decisions or laws that may harm the environment.
The statements detail effects ranging from water and air pollution to aesthetics, noise and changes to “community character.”
Paper copies are usually available at town halls and libraries during business hours. Citizens can order copies under the Freedom of Information Law, typically at 25 cents per page — a fee that can add up quickly on big projects.
Time to participate
“We often hear it said that people are not getting involved in community issues these days. Part of that is due to lack of time, especially to those that commute,” said Doreen Tignanelli, a Town of Poughkeepsie resident and environmental watchdog.
“This will make it much easier for people to intelligently participate,” she said. “After all, you can’t expect people to show up at a meeting and ask the right questions if they have not had an opportunity to review the data ahead of time.”
The law applies to environmental impact statements prepared as of today, so the posting of documents for projects already being reviewed is optional.
Towns can choose to post the environmental impact statements on their Web sites, or require developers to post the documents and publicize the Web address.
The new state law, proposed by Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, was passed last year with near-unanimous support in both the state Senate and Assembly.
“Information is power. Citizens should have the opportunity to review this information in as easy a format as can be provided,” said Judith Enck, a policy analyst for Spitzer’s office. “We don’t think it’s going to be burdensome on the business community and local government. Lots of teenagers have their own Web sites, so a viable company should have no problem.”
Jean Rowe, the executive director of the Builders Association of the Hudson Valley, said her main concern about the law is it could slow down the approval process. The cost of complying shouldn’t be a burden for builders.
Hyde Park upgraded the capacity of its Web site last week in preparation for the new law, Supervisor Pompey Delafield said. The town plans to post all future environmental impact statements on its Web site. It hasn’t decided whether to post statements for projects that are already in review.
“It does cost money for the towns to do this because somebody has to post it and watch over it,” Delafield said. “Somebody’s got to make sure it’s kept up to date. Whether it’s worth that cost or not, it’s one more of those unfunded mandates put down on towns. I’m sure there will be a few people who take advantage of the service, and in that sense it’s a good thing.”
Dan Shapley can be reached at email@example.com
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