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March 9 — New York state, after more than three years of work, is expected to issue regulations shortly to amend its environmental review process under the State Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQR).
The regulations, which would be the first changes to SEQR in 10 years, are expected to add a new mandatory scoping requirement for environmental impact statements (EIS), exempt additional projects from the review requirements and streamline the process for obtaining approval of the impact statements, according to a summary of the proposal obtained by Bloomberg BNA.
The regulations (6 NYCRR Part 617) will be subject to a 90-day public comment period after they're released and after a public hearing by the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), according to a summary that was provided to stakeholders March 3.
The key provisions in the regulations, according to the summary, include:
The changes could have a significant impact because SEQR has been at the center of some of the state's biggest environmental issues, including hydraulic fracturing, the transportation of Bakken crude oil in Albany, N.Y., and the regulation of concentrated animal feeding operations .
Environmental groups and businesses have been at odds over SEQR for some time, with businesses contending that the process puts up undue obstacles in the way of development and environmentalists arguing that the process is needed to protect the environment.
New York enacted the State Environmental Quality Review Act in 1975, some five years after the National Environmental Policy Act was signed into law. One of the most stringent statutes in the country, it generally requires that projects, actions and permitting activities proposed by state and local governments be subject to an environmental review.
“DEC is currently working on a package of reforms to the SEQR process that will simplify and streamline the process and promote more meaningful environmental reviews,” Sean Mahar, a spokesman for the DEC, told Bloomberg BNA.
“This will be accomplished by reducing the number of minor projects and routine governmental decisions that are subject to SEQR by adding them to the statewide list of actions that are exempt from further SEQR review,” he said.
Darren Suarez, director of government affairs for the Business Council of New York State, told Bloomberg BNA that the proposed changes “reflect an interest by the administration to improve SEQR a little and encourage the right type of projects” by making them exempt from the review process.
“Unfortunately, the proposed amendments to Section 617 will do little to address the problems with SEQR, which has been abused to produce costly delays and uncertainty for businesses, not-for-profits and governments,” he said in an e-mail.
DEC removed a number of provisions contained in earlier drafts of the regulations—including changing certain timeframes—because it believes that such changes would require legislation and couldn't be done administratively, according to a source familiar with the proposal who asked to remain anonymous since the regulations haven't been officially released.
“The devil is in the details,” the source said. “It would appear, however, that any changes to process that do not require statutory changes will never be anything more than a guidance because lead agency behavior is difficult to enforce.”
The regulations would add some 12 new projects and actions to the regulation's Type II list, which covers actions and projects that don't require an EIS, because they are deemed to not have a significant impact on the environment. They include brownfield clean-up agreements, “green” infrastructure, solar energy and sustainable development.
“The proposed expansion of the Type II list will also serve to incentivize positive state environmental initiatives such as green infrastructure, development of solar energy and encouraging growth within established urban areas,” Mahar said.
The Type I list, which includes those projects that do require an EIS, would be amended to lower the threshold for residential subdivisions, add a threshold for parking spaces in small communities and amend the threshold for historic properties.
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