Sometime this spring, possibly as early as April, the town board is expected to hold a public hearing on a new wetlands law. There can be no doubt that the proposed law, as currently written, weakens the regulations that are protecting our fragile and critically important wetlands. The proposed law:
• Dramatically increases the size of wetlands that would be protected, from 1,000 square feet to 4,356 square feet without considering what benefit(s) the smaller wetland(s) may provide;
• Exempts town-owned wetlands from the law;
• Lacks a notification requirement so that homeowners will know when their neighbor is applying for a wetland’s permit that may have an adverse impact on their property.
If you believe we need stronger, not weaker, wetland protection laws, you have two options: wait to speak up in opposition to the law at the public hearing, or try to strengthen the draft law before it gets to the hearing stage.
Speaking up at public hearings is the traditional way residents have voiced their opposition to a pending local law. But too many times, the hearing comes too late in the process to have any effect. All too often, it’s become apparent that the town board has already made up its mind.
Supervisor Michael Grace admitted as much at a recent board meeting. Asked by a resident if public hearings mattered, the supervisor said: “[If] it sometimes appears that a decision has been made [before the hearing], to be truthful, sometimes it is.” And to drive his point home, he admitted that if the town board is the one proposing the law, it’s logical for the board to be in favor of the law, no matter what residents say.
The supervisor’s statement should come as no surprise to residents who attended the recent hearings on the tree law, the rezoning for Mohegan Auto & Tire, and, most recently, the business tax abatement law. Their comments were either ignored or dismissed as not relevant.
In an effort to justify his statement, Supervisor Grace went on to say that by the time a hearing is held, residents have already had ample opportunity to provide input to the board and that comments received at 11th hour hearings usually come too late to be considered.
So that leaves us with Option No. 2: providing input prior to the public hearing.
Typically, before a public hearing is held on a proposed new law, the text of the law goes through one or more drafts, which are discussed at town board work session meetings. These meetings are open to the public, but are not televised. You have to attend if you want to know what’s happening.
Supervisor Grace’s unwritten “rule” is that the public is not allowed to address the board at work sessions; only members of interested advisory boards that have a direct interest in the proposed law, e.g., the Tree Conservation Advisory Commission when the tree law was being discussed, are “invited up to the board table” to discuss the draft with board members.
However, Supervisor Grace sometimes changes his rule, on the spot, depending on how many concerned residents are at the meeting; the more residents there are, the harder it is for him to silence all of them. So keep this in mind the next time the proposed wetlands law is on a work session agenda. Don’t be shy about politely raising your hand and asking to speak.
A second way to provide input prior to the public hearing is to write out your comments and email them to all board members. Of course, you have no guarantee that board members will read them, let alone consider them, but at least you’ll be on record as having provided the input. And, if your comments are not incorporated into the final draft, at the hearing you can always ask: “What happened to my input?”
That’s what I’m doing. I just sent a three page memo to the board with my comments (available at yorktownbettergovernment.org) on the most recent draft, including my concerns about the inexplicable increase in the size of a wetland what will be protected, the unacceptable absence of public notification provisions, and the law’s failure to protect town owned wetlands.