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Feb 23, 2010 6:41 PMPublication: The East Hampton Press

Bill would give towns authority over wetlands and ease burden, costs for state

Feb 23, 2010 6:41 PM

In an effort to save the state money and ease the burden on understaffed and underfunded state environmental agents, Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. of Sag Harbor has proposed giving local jurisdictions complete authority over regulating development adjacent to tidal wetlands, as long as their restrictions are equal to or more stringent than state requirements.

Mr. Thiele says doing away with redundancies could save the state money, lighten the caseload on the state Department of Environmental Conservation, and remove a level of bureaucracy that homeowners seeking wetlands permits have to navigate. So he recently introduced legislation to streamline the process and hand the authority to local governments. The bills are being considered by the state Assembly’s and Senate’s Environmental Conservation committees.

“The state is facing substantial budget deficits, and the governor is proposing cuts to essential programs like 
education, colleges, health care and the environment. First, we should be looking at eliminating duplication of effort by different levels of government,” Mr. Thiele said. “Anyone who has 
ever built a dock knows where we can start. A simple dock application in a village on Long Island will require a 
tidal wetlands permit from the village, the town and the state. Such duplication is wasteful and inefficient. My proposal would eliminate the confusion and duplication and save the state money.”

Many municipalities, including Southampton and East Hampton towns, have long had much more stringent development restrictions in areas bordering tidal wetlands than the state. Southampton Town wetlands codes require that a home undergoing construction in the wetlands zone be at least 100 feet from wetlands and that its septic system be at least 150 feet away. East Hampton Town requires a 100-foot setback. The state requires only a 75-foot setback for a house and 100 feet for septic systems.

But homeowners must apply to their respective town and the state for any work in a wetlands adjacent area.

Southampton Town Chief Environmental Analyst Marty Shea says that he commonly advises homeowners to apply to the town first because if they meet town requirements, their applications are usually well within state parameters.

“We have no interest in bouncing someone back and forth between the town and the DEC,” Mr. Shea said. “Coming to the town first isn’t a guarantee that you’ll get a DEC permit ... there are some instances where we may not agree on an alternative. But it’s rare that we would approve an application and the state denies it.”

When changes are proposed to an existing house that lies inside town wetlands setbacks, an application must be made to the Conservation Board for a wetlands permit, which allows the town to impose conditions for the proposed work to go forward, such as planting protective buffers, or restoring previously lost wetlands. The state rarely makes such requirements, Mr. Shea said.

“The intent of the local law is not only no net loss of wetlands, but net gain through restoration as a condition of a wetlands permit,” he said. “Our local law recognizes that the loss of wetlands and wetland buffers impacts the environment and the quality of life here.”

Larry Penny, director of East Hampton Town’s Natural Resources Department, noted that state freshwater wetlands laws give towns the ability to take over sole review duties, though few have done so. Paring down the regulatory hoops for saltwater permits would be a benefit, he said.

“Everything is done now in triplicate,” he said. “We have many too many people doing things, when we used to do them with a third the number of people and we had a lot more to cover.”

Peconic Baykeeper Kevin McAllister, one of the most vocal and outspoken local advocates for limiting the impacts of human development on local wetlands, said that handing over authority in wetlands regulation to those local municipalities that have stringent laws and sufficient staffing to regulate effectively would be a welcome change.

“The state is overwhelmed—I know with their staffing and their cutbacks, they’re grossly understaffed,” Mr. McAllister said. “Not only are the applications backlogged but having the proper due diligence in the review process is likely wanting. Transferring authority to a local jurisdiction would help them focus their efforts on the areas that aren’t getting as much oversight.”

A spokesperson for the state DEC said the agency has a policy of not commenting on pending legislation.

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I would rather have our Trustees dealing with applications than the DEC. That's an omnipowerfull governmental agency that answers to no one and has no elected members. Way too much power there
By bigfresh (4666), north sea on Feb 24, 10 11:51 AM
1 member liked this comment
Not only that, but it IS the law. Called the Dongan Patent.
By Terry (380), Southampton on Feb 25, 10 1:47 PM
As usual the trustees are about ten years ahead of everyone else.In East Hampton in the mid 90's a proposal was passed to allow the trustees to review applications adjacent to thier holdings, taking the Z.B.A. out of the process thereby streamlining the process and allowing elected officials to rule on these aplications instead of appointed ones.Unfortunately it was never given a chance to work because a new Town Board came to power and changed the law before even one application was reviewed.
By montaukman (98), easthampton on Feb 25, 10 9:12 PM
and if this happens - mind you it is a sound concept - will the state 'transfer' any funding for the required resources? Or will the trustees / town enforcement / whomever immediately say "we require more funding and resources in order to fulfill our newly expanded, state mandated role." If this is going to happen the projected costs / savings should be detailed and agreed upon up front so that another unfunded layer of town govt isn't created.
By zaz (197), East Hampton on Feb 26, 10 10:50 AM
1 member liked this comment
Either you support the Trustees and their conservation efforts, public access stances, regenerative efforts for shellfish communites, local dredging, etc. et. etc., or you don't, because ???? No one from the Trustees thus far has requested more "funding" from taxpayers that I am aware of - and not that I, as an individual contributor, wouldn't "pony-up" as they say, in support of any and all of projects which would (and do!) clearly benefit all EH residents . . . So ZAZ - your comments on this ...more
By Board Watcher (534), East Hampton on Mar 2, 10 8:36 PM
@ Board Watcher
The first sentence in the article states: "In an effort to SAVE THE STATE MONEY and EASE THE BURDEN ON UNDERSTAFFED AND UNDERFUNDED...AGENTS (emphasis added)...". So unless everything the state does is already replicated by the Trustees, which means by the staff, this is simply shifting the States administrative and field legwork to the town. And we should know what, if any, added resources that may require before we jump into it. So BW - maybe your new moniker should be "Gets ...more
By zaz (197), East Hampton on Mar 2, 10 11:27 PM
1 member liked this comment
This probably would mean more property taxes to fund local review and enforcement now done by the State. I love home rule like the next person, but
the Trustees were 15 years behind EH in eliminating CCA lumber from our waters. The trustees have enough on their plate already.
By danrudan (40), Southampton on Mar 5, 10 2:52 PM