State Plans to Relax Environmental Review

The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation recently announced plans to “streamline” a key method of environmental review. Part of the reason is that the department has been underfunded and spottily staffed for years. 

Cutting back on some responsibilities to be able to concentrate on others makes sense, given the financial realities. But it is hardly good news for those concerned about what effects public and private projects can have on their neighbors and surroundings.

The State Environmental Quality Review Act, often referred to as SEQRA, has been around for decades, and though its effectiveness has had its ups and downs, it remains an important tool for making sure that New York’s natural surroundings, wildlife, and community resources are protected.

The impetus for the change comes from Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s New York State Lean Initiative. In a proposal circulated late last month, the conservation department said it would expand the list of the projects exempted from SEQRA to include small solar arrays and parkland acquisitions, which would seem like good ideas. 

According to the state, the most frequent complaint from the business community is that permit approvals are often delayed as governmental review plods along. This is a valid concern; representatives of some industries have even said the slow pace of SEQRA review is an impediment to expanding or moving to New York.

On the East End, however, the state’s proposed relaxation of required review of subdivisions of 10 acres or less may go too far. Though the draft still calls for environmental assessment of such subdivisions if they were “substantially contiguous” to wetlands or other significant areas that would seem insufficient to fully protect them. Given the nearness of bays and harbors to nearly every parcel of land on the North and South Forks, as well as our groundwater sources, only the highest degree of scrutiny will do.

Local officials and environmental groups should look very closely at the state plan. Loosening the rules might be good for business, but, on the East End at least, the fragility of the natural surroundings should take precedence over monetary concerns.