Watching out for wetlands with new law

The Millerton News Editorial

The Washington Town Board took a significant step recently when it passed the long-awaited Wetlands Law, or more precisely, Local Law No. 1 of 2011, to “amend the town of Washington’s zoning code to add a new section entitled Wetlands and Watercourses Law.”

It will help prevent “despoliation and destruction of wetlands, water bodies and watercourses and controlled areas, collectively referred to as ‘regulated areas,’ recognizing their varying ecological, water quality, supply and recreational values,” according to the law.

This is just the thing to help protect the types of natural resources that make the Millbrook area as ecologically diverse and aesthetically pleasing as it is. It also provides the Planning Board with some teeth while reviewing site plans and subdivisions; it gives the building inspector the same when approving building permits.

According to the law, its intent is “to insure that activities in and adjacent to wetlands, watercourses and water bodies do not adversely affect the natural environment, or cause significant environmental degradation or unduly impact the public health, safety and general welfare.”

Just when it seems that every square inch of space could potentially be exploited by unknown contaminants, egregious overdevelopment or simply bad decision making, having the protection of such regulations is a sound idea. It’s important communities take steps to protect their natural resources, because once they’re gone, they’re gone.

The Washington law has been in the works for nearly three years. The town has taken its time to get this just right. Yes, there are valid questions, mostly about protocol: Should consultants be hired? How will fees be handled? How will the overall process work? And, of course, is the Planning Board properly trained to handle wetlands issues? All of those questions will need to be answered, sooner rather than later. But getting this law adopted was an important first step, and it was extremely encouraging to see the Town Board pass it unanimously.

Some have raised concerns that the adoption of the law will create another layer of legislation that isn’t necessary. Of course, there is always the risk of too much bureaucracy in government. But sometimes those layers are there for a reason. Instituting a mandatory permit review process to “reduce the potential for significant adverse environmental impacts to important natural resources,” as stated in the law, is actually a safety net put in place to protect the community, not hinder it.

It’s good to know Washington takes its natural resources so seriously — that it wants to protect them for this generation and the next. We can but hope other municipalities follow suit.