Editorial: Protecting Wetlands

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The Harbor Committee has a tough job weighing the rights of property owners against the community’s interest in environmental protection. The panel is serious about protecting wetlands and the adjacent bay system and does a good job minimizing the impacts of development by requiring natural vegetative buffers, wetlands setbacks and, whenever possible, the installation of “innovative alternative” septic systems that actively reduce nitrogen discharge.

But the procession of applications for wetlands permits, and the detailed review that each requires, can dull anyone’s sense of the Big Picture. What is the Big Picture? According to the village’s wetlands law, “the public policy of the village [is] to protect and conserve its wetlands” and to do so the village “shall seek to avoid or minimize damage to wetlands to the maximum extent possible.”

Given those goals, does it make sense to allow a swimming pool to be built in a Fordham Road backyard, 20 feet closer to the wetlands boundary than the 75-foot setback required by the law, practically on the banks of Ligonee Brook, which links Sag Harbor Cove with the unique ecosystem of the Long Pond Greenbelt? Does the Harbor Committee have some obligation to grant the permit? No — but the feeling has been that allowing some deviation from the code is worth it if the applicant will agree to make changes that result in an overall environmental benefit.

In this case, the applicant would create a vegetative buffer of native species between the pool and the house where there currently is herbicide- and fertilizer-dependent open lawn; he also will install a modern septic system that actively reduces nitrogen discharge into the groundwater.

The committee seemed poised to grant the application on Monday until attorney Jeff Bragman, representing a neighbor, emphatically reminded the board it was the last line of defense for environmentally vulnerable Ligonee Brook. Mr. Bragman’s presentation was a wakeup call, reminding the committee that it should break away from a pro forma processing role and decide in every case whether the proposed improvements on the property are better than no pool at all. If not, deny the permit.

If the answer is “yes,” and that finding can be supported by valid arguments, a pool in a Fordham backyard would be a fair price for the community to pay for valuable benefits that will actually reduce threats to the brook. But it is on the board to weigh whether the positives truly outweigh the negative consequences or if we are simply trying to come to compromise on an application that maybe should not be approved at all.

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