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Monroe's wetlands mystery deepens
By Chris McKenna
Times Herald-Record
07/07/03



Monroe - Wetlands? What wetlands?

Controversy has erupted in a Monroe neighborhood over a builder's clearing of a 1.3-acre parcel where he wants to build a house - work that neighbors say included the destruction of protected wetlands.
And the ruckus, still unfolding before the town Planning Board, has given the town fresh inspiration to tighten its wetlands law, including raising a $50 fine that officials admit is too low to stop a builder from messing with wetlands.

Wetlands are protected because they provide habitat for fish and wildlife, store water and act as natural filters to remove pollutants from water.

All parties in this pitched battle agree on this much: workers cleared builder Louis Donnelly's Sapphire Road property one weekend in October and returned in the spring to dig a drainage ditch - or swale - around the perimeter.

But viewpoints diverge sharply from there.

Neighbor Ward Brower III says Donnelly's workers also filled in a pond on the property with dirt and construction debris and destroyed wetlands around it by digging the swale.

"He just pulled the plug on the wetlands," he said.

Brower says he's upset because destroying the wetlands removed an important filter that kept sewage and other contaminants from seeping into nearby Blythea Lake.

Joy Hyman, another resident, demands: "How can someone come in and plow a piece of property without a permit? I'm flabbergasted. I can't believe the town feels this is business as usual."

The town's side: Planning Board Engineer Michael Murphy agrees a 40-foot-wide pond seems to have disappeared, but says there's no proof Donnelly killed it.

He also agrees Donnelly "certainly dug the swale to help dry out the property," but says, again, there's no proof wetlands were destroyed.
"There was no documentation of pre-existing wetlands," he said.
Donnelly, for his part, says he "never disturbed one blade of wetlands grass." And he angrily accuses the town of hurting him financially by delaying a permit he applied for in November.

"I'm being screwed royally," he said. "There is absolutely no impact to the environment from my project."

The pond, he added, was "bone dry" when his workers got to it. "There was not even dust in it."

Donnelly is seeking a Planning Board permit to build in a wetlands "buffer" - any place within 100 feet of a federally recognized wetland.
Planning Board Chairman Charles Finnerty said last week that Donnelly will be fined $50 - the maximum amount - for cutting down trees and doing other work on the property before getting board approval.
He also said the situation has sped up board efforts to strengthen the town's 1990 wetlands law, including an increase in the fine for disturbing wetlands or wetlands buffer.

"Certainly, that was a further impetus," Finnerty said, "because we realized that there was not enough teeth in the law to punish someone."

The board hasn't decided what new fine it will recommend, but its model is a law from the Westchester County Town of Somers that includes a fine of up to $10,000, Murphy said.

The Planning Board meets at 7:30 p.m. tomorrow but isn't expected to decide on the permit then.

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