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Great Lakes Article:

Protection for wetlands is in the 'gaps'

Federal officials say local rules may help

Dan Shapley
New York Poughkeepsie Journal

MILLBROOK -- Significant gaps in federal and state wetlands protections can be filled by local laws, federal officials said.

During a meeting last week of the Dutchess County Environmental Management Council, two Army Corps of Engineers regulators pointed to examples of local wetlands preservation laws -- including one recently passed in the Town of Fishkill -- that help fill in those gaps.

While the officials stopped short of endorsing often-controversial efforts to enact local laws, they identified gaps in federal and state laws that leave ecologically important wetlands unprotected.

''What I would want to do is find out where the gaps are,'' said James Cronin, a biologist and project manager, explaining the function of local wetlands laws. ''There are gaps.''

Engineer advice

The Army Corps of Engineers regulated all wetlands, but a 2001 Supreme Court ruling and subsequent guidelines from the Bush Administration restrict federal jurisdiction over ''isolated'' wetlands not connected to navigable waters. Federal laws also allow building right up to the edge of wetlands.

State laws regulate wetlands 12.4 acres or bigger and require a buffer around those wetlands for added protection.

The Fishkill law passed last week is an example of how a local law can fill some of those gaps. It applies to wetlands, streams and other water bodies between one and 12.4 acres, and allows for the protection of a buffer around most wetlands.

Wetlands serve important functions in the environment such as cleansing water, helping restore the groundwater most Dutchess County residents drink and providing habitat for wildlife. An estimated 50 percent of New York's wetlands were filled or drained before laws were passed to protect them.

''That's why a lot of locals are interested in these local rules,'' said Gwen Harding-Peets, chairwoman of the Environmental Management Council.

Carl Diesing, a builder from the Town of Poughkeepsie who attended the meeting, said he would rather not see more stringent local laws, in part because of the headaches and costs of additional paperwork.

''My feeling is we could get another (that is) the same as what we have to obey now,'' he said.

Several proponents of local laws said they see merit in local laws that allow for a single permit application that combines local laws with the existing combined state/federal applications.

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