The Beauty and Zen of SEQRA: Town Board Proposes Scoping Dates of January 9 and 22

By Christine Yeres
December 7, 2007

The 1975 State Environmental Quality Review Act, commonly known as SEQRA, creates time and place for citizens to stop, take a breath, and thoroughly examine projects that are likely to have very big impacts on communities well before such projects can hope to get approval.

People in communities that may be affected by the proposed development are often busy with their everyday lives, whereas a developer can be more focused on what it wants out of its investment and has lawyers and consultants focusing on it, too.  SEQRA helps to even up the playing field and allows community members to collect their thoughts, and a few experts of their own.

Environmental review draws all the facts together in one place

Many New Castle residents worry that the developer of the Reader’s Digest property, Summit Greenfield, will succeed in keeping the two parts of its proposal – 278 residential units and an unlimited number of business tenants – in separate compartments so that the proposed plan could seem to have half the impact. But the SEQRA process makes sure that can’t happen. The act requires that all the parts of a plan and all the potential effects – even things that might seem minor – be laid out, in plain view of the public, before anything can move forward.

Cost of experts paid by Summit Greenfield

New Castle’s town code provides that when the town board is participating in an environmental review process, any experts they deem necessary will ultimately be paid for by the applicant, in this case Summit Greenfield, whose application for approval of its project caused the consultants to be necessary in the first place. The developer’s responsibility for the legal and expert costs encourages communities to relax and carefully consider all parts of the proposal.

Let the scoping begin!

On Tuesday, Nov. 27, the town board officially announced the start of the scoping period, which runs for 90 days. The period usual lasts 60 days, but the town board asked Summit Greenfield for a 30 day extension because of the December holidays. On Dec. 3, the town board proposed two dates, Jan. 9 and Jan. 22, for the scoping sessions.  The Board has yet to confirm these dates. During scoping sessions, residents and town board determine the scope of the issues to which the developer must respond.

The scoping phase kicks off when the developer provides the town board an environmental assessment form, which contains a list of all the things it thinks the residents and the town will consider potential problems with its proposal. Scoping affords the community the opportunity to add what they believe to be potential problems to the developer’s list. Naturally, the community and the developer may have different views of the same issues.

The town board is always interested in letters or emails from residents. Now is the time to contact them so they can represent your views in the scoping document. Whether you love, hate, or are unsure about the proposal, during these 90 days of scoping, the town board invites all residents to come to the scoping session. Dates will be confirmed and times will be announced.  All views are welcome. There will be plenty of time in the next 90 days to compose a laundry list of what parts of the project are questionable, too big or will have too much of a negative impact – whether on the environment; traffic; infrastructure; economy; existing patterns of population concentration, distribution, or growth; or the character of the community or neighborhood.

The SEQRA process also encompasses alternatives

Not only does the scoping require the community to compile a list of potential problems and their impacts, but it also requires that the town board, based on residents’ and experts’ suggestions, make a list of possible alternatives to Summit Greenfield’s proposal, ranging down to “no action.”

At the scoping sessions, residents can bring up problems they see with the proposal, as well as alternatives that should be thoroughly explored; a court reporter records comments. The town board later distills comments from residents and members of the zoning board and planning board into a formal document that Summit Greenfield is required to answer point-by-point to the community’s satisfaction. When Summit Greenfield returns with its answers, the community will have another designated time period in which to decide whether it is satisfied with those answers. Then there will be another comment period or even a hearing. Finally, the town board decides whether to allow the proposed action by the developer to go forward.

So come and speak your piece. The more input the town board has, the better the final decision will be. The board could be made up of the five smartest people in the world, but the input from several hundred or—even better—thousands of residents is better. The future of New Castle and the Reader’s Digest property is in your capable collective hands.