D.E.C. Wants to Do Less

Aim to streamline environmental review process

In order “to streamline the regulatory process without sacrificing meaningful environmental review,” the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation has proposed amending the State Environmental Quality Review Act, which dictates close scrutiny of projects that could have negative  environmental impacts.

The law, known as SEQRA, was originally enacted to “incorporate the consideration of environmental factors into the existing planning, review, and decision-making processes of state, regional, and local government agencies at the earliest possible time.” It requires that all agencies determine whether their actions, such as approval of a development, could have a “significant impact” on the environment. If so, an environmental impact statement, in which the possible effects and ways to mitigate them are examined, must be prepared by those seeking review.

The proposed changes to the law would expand the list of activities that are not subject to review under SEQRA, or classified as Type 2. The intent, as described in state documents, is that in “the protection and enhancement of the environment, human and community resources should be given appropriate weight with social and economic considerations in determining public policy, and that those factors be considered together in reaching decisions on proposed activities.”

Construction of certain buildings on previously disturbed sites in municipal centers, which meet zoning standards and are to be connected to existing public water and sewer systems, would be exempt, as would redevelopment of a building that meets zoning codes.

The revised law would also exempt from additional review the granting of area variances or lot-line adjustments that do not increase density, and certain subdivisions defined as “minor” under municipal codes, involving 10 acres or less, as long as they are not “substantially contiguous” to a critical environmental area.

Exemptions from SEQRA would include the retrofitting of an existing structure or facility to incorporate “green infrastructure,” such as stormwater management processes like rain gardens, the installation of fiber-optic or other broadband cable technology in existing highway or utility rights of way, and the installation of cellular antennas or repeaters on nonhistorical structures.

Also among the projects that would be exempted is the installation of five megawatts or less of solar energy arrays at such locations as industrial sites, landfills, above-ground parking facilities, or on nonhistorical buildings.

The proposed revisions were developed through a series of meetings between state staff and representatives of some municipalities, environmental groups, and developers.  East Hampton did not participate.

Marguerite Wolffsohn, the town’s planning director, and town attorneys are reviewing the proposed changes to determine their possible implications on planning board review and other permitting processes.

According to the D.E.C., the “stakeholders” who participated in the discussions agreed that the SEQRA process “continues to play a key role in ensuring that environmental concerns factor into agency decision making.” They also agreed, the agency said, “on the need to update the regulations to make the process more efficient and less frustrating to the regulated community.”

The “most recurrent concern,” the state agency said, was expressed by business and industry representatives about the time some environmental reviews take to complete; it is an impediment to businesses considering relocating to New York, it said.

To address these concerns, the draft of the revised law includes a timeline along with a framework for preparation of environmental impact statements.

Also proposed would be a provision requiring what is known in planning circles as a scoping session for every environmental review. Such sessions are not now required for all reviews. 

During the scoping process, potentially significant adverse  environmental impacts of a proposed action are  to be identified, so that the impact statement can focus on them rather than on insignificant impacts. The process is meant to ensure that the concerns of all involved agencies are addressed, including members of the public, who must be allowed to participate.

Comments on the proposed amendments can be submitted to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, Division of Environmental Permits, Attention: James J. Eldred, Environmental Analyst, 625 Broadway, Albany, N.Y., 12233-1750, or by e-mail to: seqra617@dec.ny.gov through May 19. A hearing is coming up in Albany on March 31.