Wednesday, July 16, 2003

Checkered laws won't save water

Town leaders are grabbing headline glory by touting their laws to protect wetlands and streams, but don't be fooled: Not all the laws are good ones.

Worse yet, the majority of the 20 Dutchess County towns have done nothing. Neither has any of the neighboring towns in Ulster County.

This is reckless. These vital water sources will only become more important as the valley's population grows.

That's because wetlands are a holding place for rainwater, allowing it to seep gradually into the ground. Homes and paved roads, in contrast, simply let rainwater run off into streams -- and ultimately the Hudson River. That means the county's groundwater supplies aren't getting replenished like they should.

The U.S. Supreme Court has foolishly stripped away the power of the Army Corps of Engineers to regulate "disconnected" smaller wetlands.

The state has oversight of larger ones -- those 12.4 acres or more. But, because of the high court's decision, smaller ones are now vulnerable. That's a huge problem because even isolated wetlands help our environment. They cleanse groundwater. They recharge underground reservoirs. They filter out pollutants.

These wetlands are an integral part of any area's water system, and, more than 60 percent of Dutchess homes get their water through ground sources.

States and localities had two years' warning that federal agencies -- in reaction to the U.S. Supreme Court ruling -- would stop protecting smaller wetlands.

Contrary to popular belief, the Army Corps of Engineers usually didn't deny property owners permits to build near wetlands. It usually did require some changes in development plans to mitigate the impact. Oftentimes, wetlands that were destroyed had to be replaced somewhere else.

This is a reasonable solution, and Congress should clarify the law so it says that small water bodies deserve the same protection as large ones.

Some Dutchess towns understand this. A parade of them -- including Fishkill, LaGrange, and Pleasant Valley -- all have recently passed ordinances that provide fairly good safeguards.

The numbers tell the story.

In Fishkill and LaGrange, for example, buffer zones -- areas where development isn't allowed or is heavily regulated -- start at 50 feet for wetlands and for bodies of water from one to two acres in size and extend to 100 feet for those of three acres and more. Violators face fines of up to $1,000 for a first offense. They could be hit with $15,000 in fines and face 15 days in jail for additional offenses.

Keep in mind these towns continue to grow, despite the regulations that developers incorrectly say are too onerous. But the county's most populous town, Poughkeepsie, hasn't shown such foresight -- and many towns have shown even less.

Some of the fastest-growing towns in Dutchess -- from the larger ones like East Fishkill and Beekman, to the smaller ones like Milan -- have done nothing.

And some towns that have passed laws, like Poughkeepsie, have handled the matter poorly. First, the town board rejected recommendations from its Conservation Advisory Commission that called for strong environmental laws. Next, it appointed its own task force, which came up with regulations that were clearly inadequate. Then, it passed those regulations, which only have a 25-foot buffer for wetlands and water bodies up to 5 acres. And the fines for violators are ridiculously low. First offenders face a $100 penalty. Second offenders, $500.

Supervisor Joe Davis and the majority of the board were apparently more interested in reaching a compromise with developers than they were about the views of natural water experts.

One property in the town, the former Girl Scout camp on Spackenkill Road, includes several wetlands that should be better insulated from development. The same is true with the wetlands located on some IBM lands off Route 9 -- lands that are up for sale.

Those against any wetland regulations in Poughkeepsie and other places make the rather weak argument that all towns are different. But, when it comes to protecting waterways, they shouldn't be. Scientists have recently documented a measurable decline in water quality of many Hudson Valley streams, possibly due to overdevelopment.

And town boundaries are artificially drawn lines based on political decisions. Often they have nothing to do with natural boundaries. It's nonsense to suggest that a creek in one town should have any less protection than one in a neighboring town. But that's precisely what we are stuck with. For example, Pleasant Valley has set a 100-foot buffer zone for the Wappingers Creek; Poughkeepsie's protection area for the creek is only half that.

In Hyde Park, the buffer-zone issue has been caught in a larger dispute over zoning. The town had considered a much more stringent setback in some cases -- 500 feet back from wetlands or streams -- but that proposal was removed after residents criticized it in connection with the town's 200-plus pages of suggested zoning changes. Hyde Park officials vow to address the wetlands matter separately. They had better.

As depicted in the accompanying graphic, some northern Dutchess towns, from Red Hook across to North East, see no reason to enact such protection, since development pressure is not as acute there as it is in southern Dutchess. But it will be one day. It makes sense to put a sound law in place first rather than react to development changes later.

The time to do that is now.

Relevant Web links

To learn more about wetlands, go to the Web site:

For more information about isolated wetlands, visit the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Web site at

To read the oral arguments in the U.S. Supreme Court case, go the Web site: Search under "wetlands" and find the case "99-1178.pdf"

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Copyright 2006, Poughkeepsie Journal. Reprinted with Permission.
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