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Climate change, land management abuse and flooding
By Lee Chowaniec
Oct 22, 2006, 11:50
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Got your power restored and still getting water in your basement? Back yard flooded with inches of standing water? Is the nearby creek or stream ready to overflow its bank? Believe all flooding and drainage issues are attributable to the weather?

Considering that anything is possible, one could rationally attribute the recent October storm to climate change effects we know are occurring, as with the other indicators we have witnessed in Western New York over the past several decades.

Our winters have been warmer and shorter, the weather more variable and extreme. As of today, we are six inches above normal in annual average precipitation. Scientific data has clearly shown that the icebergs are melting, the oceans are warmer, sea levels are rising and storms are more violent and frequent.

Whether or not you believe that man made carbon emissions are impacting climate change, it doesn’t matter, climate change is a reality. The wholesale destruction of the world’s forests and wetlands has reduced nature’s ability to not only absorb greenhouse gases, but more importantly, to absorb water and control flooding and draining issues.

It is predicted that with the warming we are now experiencing, there will be more “variability” in weather patterns and that our region will experience even more precipitation, with increasing risks of flooding and challenges to public health – as we experienced with the dumping of millions of gallons of raw sewage into the Niagara River when the water treatment plant lost power.

Homes will be built here
Western New York is a watershed for Lake Erie. Many creeks and streams interconnect and ultimately flow into Lake Erie or into the Niagara River. Unfortunately, many of these waterways have had their flows interrupted, redirected and or were filled in along with their wetlands and adjacent areas over the past several decades through economic development strategies that failed not only to protect the environment, but residents from resulting harm as well.

Over time, the region has lost large amounts of wetlands and their adjacent protective areas needlessly for the sake of developer and municipal gain. Wetlands act as sponges and retain and purify a million gallons of water. Yet, because they are not “navigable” (connected directly to a large body of water) they are deemed “isolated” and therefore inconsequential and deserving of being destroyed and/or filled in.

Developers buying parcels of lands with wetlands on them have arrogantly come into our municipalities and openly declared they could get the necessary permits to destroy and/or fill in said wetlands and their adjacent areas anytime they want. The developers say that they will provide catch basin designs that will release the water from the site at the same rate as before development. What no regard to removing hydric soils that retain and purify water?

There are regulatory agencies in place whose job is to protect environment and resident best interest through their involvement in the State Environmental Quality Review (SEQR) process; acting sometimes as the lead agent in the process, most often acting in a coordinating role where the municipality is the lead agent. SEQR is designed to identify and mitigate, to the extent practicable, the potential impacts associated with a development project.

SEQR provides for social and environmental protection. It provides for public input and demands that when significant adverse impacts are identified a “positive declaration” is made and the project sponsor must draft an impact statement that identifies and details how those identified significant impacts will be mitigated.

Too often, municipal lead agencies perform a SEQR and make a “negative declaration” based on information provided by project sponsors who are less than forthcoming or truthful on the impacts associated with their project.

Case in point is a recent Lancaster patio home project that appears to be dead because the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) visited the project site and declared the land was undevelopable because of the extent of wetlands on the site.

When asked at the Lancaster Planning Board whether there were any wetlands on the project site, the project sponsors engineering representative answered that he had walked the site, did not see much standing water, and although he was not an expert in hydrology or vegetation, there appeared to be no indication of wetlands on site. Fortunately, the DEC had not relinquished its lead agency status to the town at this point.

Too often in the past, municipal Planning and Town Boards would accept the scant information provided by the developer, would not demand necessary studies to verify the information presented was credible and would grant approvals based on “small-to-moderate impact determinations that cumulatively would adversely impact a neighborhood or the community as a whole.

Pressures from developers on lead agencies and/or municipalities for negative declarations have increased over the years as dry uplands are harder to come by. Developers don’t want the scrutiny involved with the SEQR process and the resulting costs of drafting an impact statement should potential significant adverse impacts be identified.

Developers would rather push the envelope and force citizens to instate lawsuits to challenge the legality of their project operations and/or designs. The same may be said for citizens having to absorb litigation costs down the road to remedy the harm developers caused.

Homes will also be built here
Harm caused by developer guns (consultants) to under delineate wetland size, to designate interconnected small wetlands as “isolated” thereby getting the necessary permits from regulatory agencies to fill in or destroy valuable and functional wetland sponges. Even worse is not making known to prospective homebuyers that their property, and even their house, may sit in a wetland and that future potential adverse impacts could be realized – flooding, drainage, home structural damage, etc.

Municipalities have the authority to disallow development when a proposed development brings negative impacts to a community that outweighs the development’s socio-economic benefits. Too often the municipality is more interested in the revenues generated by the project to give a hoot about the welfare of the community and/or environment.

Fortunately, many municipalities have recently become more vigilant and stringent on ensuring project developments control stormwater runoffs not only on the project site but onto the neighboring lands as well – backyard and side yard drains, retention ponds and the necessary drainage pipes to get the water to the ponds.

More important is for municipalities and regulatory agencies to disallow developers from buying a piece of swampland and destroying and/or filling it in for the purpose of developer profit and town revenue at the expense of the environment and community.

We have a region declining in population, yet we sprawl with little thought to consequence. How many “small-to-moderate” impacts lead to a neighborhood or community’s hardship?

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