Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Decoding SEQR, Part III

No, thine eyes do not deceive you. I'm actually writing this. We have finally arrived at the last of our three-part series on SEQR, the New York State Environmental Review Process. This will mostly discuss the "So what?" of the process and detail what happens once the environmental review is finished.

For reference, please look at Part I for an outline of the process and key terms, and Part II for a rough timeline of events in the process.

First, Some Politics

When you get a chance, please read the two excellent write-ups from BD Gallof and Dee Karl, the 7th Woman, about this past Saturday's Republican meeting. Dee's writeup is better for those who want to hear exactly what went on and the issues that were raised, while BD took the information and pursued more of an angle. I'd read Dee's first to understand exactly what happened and then BD for the "so what?" of it all.

I will be writing about some of these issues in more detail as time passes, but it is very interesting that the Republican Party is not rising to Kate Murray's defense here. In fact, many prominent Republicans are signaling they are in favor, and the local Republican Party has staunchly refused to take any kind of a public position. This could be isolating the Town of Hempstead and forcing them to take a position.

Anyway, back to our regularly-scheduled SEQR post:

Why So Long?

The SEQR process is a necessary tool to ensure that environmental concerns are being met, and it is important to thoroughly study every possible issue.

There are many examples of things changed as a result of an environmental review process. One of my favorites is a story from 2001. Cisco, the multinational networking giant, wanted to build a new corporate campus and data center in Boxborough, MA, a farming community of roughly 5,000 people that is located 30 miles northwest of Boston. (Blogger's Note: You think NIMBYism is bad on Long Island? These people protested the installation of the town's first traffic light.) The campus was to be built on 500 acres of land, and the community was in favor of it due to the economic activity and skilled jobs it would bring to the area (sound familiar?). However, the environmental review discovered a problem: wild Blandings turtles used the proposed site for migrations. Therefore, 60 of the 500 acres needed to be preserved, and Cisco had to build underground skylit tunnels to allow the turtles to cross the site undisturbed (Source: New York Times).

(Blogger's Note: It could be so much worse than this. Alcoa, before it could build an aluminum smelting plant in Iceland, had to pay an environmental inspector from the Icelandic government to verify the site was free of elves. You can read all about it in Michael Lewis' Vanity Fair piece on Iceland)

An incident like this shows exactly why the SEQR process will not be a quick or easy undertaking for a large development such as the Lighthouse. The Lead Agency, and the public through the Public Comments period, will raise issues about the environmental review. It is the developer's responsibility to tweak the plan in ways that address any legitimate concerns, and it is not a quick or easy process.

Tool or Weapon?

Assemb. Fred Thiele (R - Bridgehampton), who has deep experience with and knowledge of the SEQR process, made a very interesting comment at Saturday's Republican roundtable:
"SEQR can be used as a tool or a weapon. You can have a good law and bad officials, or a bad law and good officials. We need to do everything we can to keep [the Islanders on Long Island]. It's of critical importance" - Fried Thiele
What an interesting point of view. SEQR was passed by the New York State Legislature as a mechanism to protect the people from runaway development that disregards the environment and the public interest. In practice, some communities have used it as a weapon and a stall tactic to prevent development.

Case in point: our Town of Hempstead. The SEQR process is supposed to move forward without getting bogged down in utter minutia or betraying any opinion on the project. Since the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) was submitted, the Town of Hempstead has, according to Michael Picker (President of the Lighthouse Development Group), made 174 comments and requests for change. Lighthouse consultants have only deemed 19 of these complaints valid, and most of the rest pointed out spelling mistakes.

This sort of nitpicking is rather typical of the Town of Hempstead, but we must not allow them to get so bogged down in minutia that the entire project is stalled. We must stay on them and remind them that their duty to the people is clear under the environmental review, and it's not this.

What Next?

The Town of Hempstead and the Lighthouse Development group should be working together on a final scope for the site, or, in other words, the actual components of the Lighthouse Project. This would be done in conjunction with finalizing and signing off on the Final Environmental Impact Statement for the site. Once the Final EIS is accepted, the environmental review is over. We would then move forward to lease negotiations and approval of subdivisions with Nassau County, and the re-zoning hearing with the Town of Hempstead. The Environmental Review process is a marathon, but the re-zoning hearing is where the rubber will hit the road for the Lighthouse.

Bottom Line

The environmental review process is stringent for a reason. Therefore, it cannot and should not be overlooked by those of us who want the Lighthouse to become reality. While an assurance of future approval is possible by October 2009, it is also possible that the environmental review cannot be completed by this time.

We must also remember that the environmental review is very different from the overall Yes or No on the Lighthouse Project. The Town of Hempstead's political games and desire for stimulus money have nothing to do with their current role in the process. As the Lead Agency, their only responsibility is to oversee the developer's preparation of the Environmenal Impact Statement and sign off on a final EIS.

This simply means that the Town of Hempstead must verify the environmental review is complete and correct, nothing more. Everything else is noise that distracts us from what should be the ultimate goal, and there will be ample opportunities to discuss the actual merits of the project outside of environmental review.

Please share your thoughts in comments. Petition. Email Me.


  1. Nick, how can we find out what recourse is available if the TOH seems to be "dragging it's feet" at some point?

  2. Hi, anon - didn't see this comment for a while. Our recourse is to stay educated and to demand what we are legally entitled to through any means available to us. Read today's post as I mention this briefly.