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Residents speak out on perceived threat to preservation by wetlands permit change

What was introduced at Tuesday’s Town Board special meeting as streamlining the process of wetlands permit approvals ran into a juggernaut of resistance from every speaker at the  public hearing.

The current procedure has the Conservation Advisory Council and Planning Board weighing in on applications for wetlands permits, but the Town Board making the final decision. The change in the Town Code Section 129 calls for the Planning Board to make the final decision to “streamline” the process, Town Attorney Stephen Kiely said.

Several Town Board members said they don’t “rubber stamp” committee advice. In practice, it’s rare for the Town Board to overturn advice from one of its committees of appointed members because of their expertise in various subjects and the reality that Town Board members aren’t experts on every issue that comes before them.

Nonetheless, person after person told Town Board members Tuesday it’s their responsibility as elected officials, not appointed committee members, to make final decisions.

“Wetlands are under siege,” said Lori Beard Raymond, speaking on behalf of the Heights Property Owners Corporation (HPOC). Giving the responsibility to the Planning Board will result in “loosening of wetlands restrictions,” she said.

“We need more restrictions, not less,” Ms. Beard Raymond added.

She was later joined by HPOC General Manager Stella Lagudis, who told the Town Board it should be making it more difficult for applicants to get wetlands permits. “The wetlands are so precious,” Ms. Lagudis said, asking the Town Board to give more thought to the proposal.

Former councilman Albert Dickson, who is seeking re-election to the Town Board in November, said he was concerned Planning Board Chairman Ian McDonald has a conflict of interest since he is an architect who has sought wetlands permits on behalf of his clients.

Mr. McDonald denied any conflict, explaining he has recused himself from any decisions involving his clients, and said of 17 pending wetlands applications, he has involvements with only one.

Deputy Supervisor Amber Brach-Williams said proposed changes to the ethics code can ensure any concerns about conflicts of interest would be addressed by the Ethics Board. Nonetheless, Mr. Dickson said the Planning Board has no environmentalist among its members, an issue that has been significant for the former councilman, who has been a consistent voice for protecting water quality.

The Town Board has no environmental experts, Mr. Kiely countered.

Kim Noland, speaking on behalf of the Shelter Island Association, said so-called “streamlining” the process is a “detriment” to the environment.

Resident Bob Kohn said moving the final decision to the Planning Board would make actions less transparent, since more people follow actions of the Town Board than the Planning Board.

Mr. Siller reminded those who spoke that “nothing is written in stone” and Tuesday’s public hearing was just the start of the discussion about making changes in how wetlands permits are handled.

The hearing was adjourned, to be reopened at a date to be determined.