Here we go again: Having gutted the law protecting Yorktown’s trees and woodlands, the Yorktown Town Board has set its sights on another environmental protection law, our Freshwater Wetlands Law.
Why do we want to save, and even increase, wetlands in Yorktown? Experience shows that wetland reduction results in more frequent and severe flooding, erosion and subsequent property damage. Wetlands serve the crucial function of controlling flooding and stormwater runoff by storing or regulating natural water flows, preventing the water from finding its way into backyards, basements or across roadways. Our tax dollars could be spent on infrastructure projects to correct drainage problems, but the wetlands provide the service for free.
Wetlands also act as filters, protecting our water quality. Water in wetlands also seeps into the ground, recharging our aquifers, a crucial benefit for those who depend on well water. Wetlands provide essential wildlife habitat; they help sustain the rich biodiversity that contributes to our quality of life in Yorktown. It’s definitely in our best interest to protect wetlands.
The town board, however, is determined to repeal the Freshwater Wetlands Law and replace it with a version that significantly weakens wetland protection.
The proposed law is weaker because it reduces the number of protected wetlands. Whereas the existing wetland law protects wetlands 1,000 square-feet or larger, a wetland has to be at least 4356 square-feet to merit protection under the proposed law, so fewer wetlands will qualify. Town board members dismiss small wetlands as mere “puddles” that serve no real function; they apparently aren’t familiar with the scientific studies showing wetland function is cumulative; several small wetlands together can be functionally as important as one large one. If the town board gives away wetlands 1,000 square feet at a time with no review, how will we know when the wetlands have been reduced to a critical level? It’ll be too late when every rainstorm becomes a flood event on someone’s property.
The proposed law is weaker because, unlike the current law, it doesn’t explicitly protect wetlands on town property, and is unclear about the law’s application to town wetlands. Supervisor Michael Grace maintains it doesn’t make sense for the town to comply with the permit process for encroaching into its own wetlands. If the standards for wetland protection are valid, shouldn’t the town be held to the same standards and requirements as private citizens?
The proposed law weakens the oversight of the process for replacing lost wetland function, or mitigation, an essential and visionary part of any law protecting and regulating a natural resource. Under some wetland permits, there is necessary and unavoidable loss of wetland function, requiring mitigation. It may include establishing new wetlands elsewhere, or rehabilitating a wetland that has been degraded.
Wetland mitigation is difficult, and attempts to replace wetland function often fail. To compensate, wetland specialists recommend wetland replacement be done in a ratio of greater than 1:1, i.e. more replaced than lost. This greater-than-1:1 replacement provision has been eliminated from the proposed wetland law, greatly increasing the likelihood of losing wetland function. And in contrast to the existing law, the proposed law has almost no guidelines for mitigation plans; we won’t know if mitigation measures are actually doing the job of replacing lost wetland functions.
Once again, the Yorktown Town Board is focusing on superficial solutions for “streamlining” a permit process. This is short-sighted. We should be paying attention to how natural environmental systems work, not how they look, in order to preserve their functions for the long-term benefit of the citizens of Yorktown.
Linda Miller is a former Yorktown Conservation Board member and environmental consultant to municipalities.