PEOPLE KNOW WHEN YOU NEED ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION
June 17, 2002
The following question received last week has such universal application
that the answer need not be restricted to a particular region of the
country. Such problems could, indeed do, arise anywhere.
Q. I am a homeowner in New Windsor, New York. My backyard butts up
to a woods owned by a developer. Last year the town had a survey done
and from the side of my yard out through the woods to a stream about
1000 yards long they placed markers that say "wetlands."
We understand the developer wants to build houses in these woods,
so how close can they come to these markers? These woods are abundant
in wildlife. What can we do as home owners (about 75 of us oppose
this development)? Any suggestions and advice will be greatly appreciated.
The question is a tough one in several ways because the laws, restrictions,
and regulations (or lack of regulations) for construction and development
vary so greatly across states and across communities within states.
So, as with many legal situations in which litigants on both sides
feel their position is the right one, getting a clear cut answer about
what is legally protected and what is not will not be simple and straightforward.
further confounding situation is a consequence of the unforgivable
5:4 decision issued by the U.S. Supreme Court in January 2001. The
ruling is considered by most wetlands biologists to have been based
on very poor judgment from a court that is supposed to be looking
out for the public's best interests (which I would take to mean environmental
interests before a lot of other kinds). Although the legal quagmire
associated with the ruling is complicated, the essence is that the
court blocked the Army Corps of Engineers from regulating, and therefore
protecting, small, isolated wetlands that are not associated with
a navigable waterway such as a lake, stream, or river. The interpretations
of the decision are still being wrangled over in many states and at
various levels, and the environmental consequences have not unfolded
entirely. Nonetheless, depending on what kind of wetland is in your
woods (and possibly upon who interprets what kind of wetland it is),
some areas may no longer be legally protected because they are considered
to fall under the Supreme Court's new view of isolated wetlands.
However, not being ahead in a game is certainly no reason to get discouraged
or stop trying, so here are some suggestions. I would first start
by contacting any federal or state agencies that you can reach (e.g.,
federal: Fish and Wildlife Service, EPA, U.S. Geological Survey, Army
Corps of Engineers; state: Department of Natural Resources or its
equivalent) either online or by telephone. Write letters to your local
newspapers and shed a lot of light on the issue. If you know others
(apparently you know at least 75) who have a similar opinion, encourage
them to write also. Likewise, be sure your elected officials at the
local, state, and federal levels know of your concerns. In your city,
you have a town supervisor, who I assume functions like a mayor. Make
certain that your local officials know that a solid segment of their
electorate is aware of the issue. This can sometimes be very effective.
Other details are hard to advise about from afar, but the general
principles are the same everywhere most people would like to keep
their neighborhood streams, woods, and other natural habitats intact,
whereas a few would like to make a profit by developing them while
they live somewhere else. Most people are interested in progress,
and now is the time to make some progress in support of the environment.
The first step is to make your community (including newspapers, the
public, and members of the local zoning board) aware of a burgeoning
problem that could lead to long term environmental destruction in
an area, while leading to short term profit for only a few. Bringing
an issue into the open is one of the strongest incentives I know of
for maintaining our progress in environmental protection.
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