We can argue endlessly about what effect low voter turnout rates have on the concept of "majority rule"—is the majority even really a majority the way most people understand the term?—but there's no doubt that one of the driving forces behind the construction of the US Constitution was protecting the rights of the minority from the "tyranny of the 51%".
And the founders viewed the protection of property rights as integral to protecting against tyranny—John Adams wrote, "Property must be secured or liberty cannot exist."
But as time has passed and people have forgotten or just never learned about why we fought a war of independence and composed the Constitution, and as the politics of envy has come to dominate politics in the US, property rights have been under attack.
Dryden is just the rest of the country writ small. There's a story to tell here, a cautionary tale.
First, some background...
About a dozen years ago, 58 sites within the Town of Dryden, encompassing over 10,000 acres or a little less than 17% of the town, were designated Unique Natural Areas (UNAs). These were "sites with outstanding environmental qualities, as defined by the Tompkins County Environmental Management Council, that are deserving of special attention for preservation and protection." The original county-wide inventory of UNA sites started out as a master's thesis at Cornell in 1976 and was added to over the years until it became an official county and town designation around 2000. Affected landowners were contacted by the town and the sites visited to make sure that landowners were on board with the process of UNA designation.
Over 30 years ago (about the same time Earth Day was invented and those UNAs were being inventoried for a Cornell master's thesis), NYS DEC created a designation called a Critical Environmental Area or CEA:
To be designated as a CEA, an area must have an exceptional or unique character with respect to one or more of the following:
• a benefit or threat to human health;
• a natural setting (e.g., fish and wildlife habitat, forest and vegetation, open space and areas of important aesthetic or scenic quality);
• agricultural, social, cultural, historic, archaeological, recreational, or educational values; or
• an inherent ecological, geological or hydrological sensitivity to change that may be adversely affected by any change.
Pretty vague…almost anything could be designated a CEA.
Following designation, the potential impact of any Type I or Unlisted Action on the environmental characteristics of the CEA is a relevant area of environmental concern and must be evaluated in the determination of significance prepared pursuant to Section 617.7 of SEQR (State Environmental Quality Review).
Type I actions meet or exceed thresholds listed in the statewide or agency SEQR regulations. These are likely to require preparation of an EIS (Environmental Impact Statement). Some examples:
• nonresidential projects physically altering 10 or more acres of land
• zoning changes affecting 25 or more acres
Type I actions do not always require an EIS.
Unlisted actions do not meet the Type I thresholds but some may still require an EIS. Some examples:
• nonresidential projects physically altering less than 10 acres of land
• adoption of regulations, ordinances, local laws and resolutions that may affect the environment
Despite the crunchy granola origins of all this back in the 70s and early 80s, when you might have thought that everyone in the state would have been jumping on the CEA bandwagon, CEA designations are actually fairly rare…until Dryden.
There are 62 counties in NYS; only 28 of those counties have CEAs within their boundaries. Half of those 28 counties, including Tompkins County, have only one CEA currently designated. The big winner (if you can call it that) in the CEA contest is Suffolk County on Long Island with 46, next are Dutchess and Westchester with 34 apiece. The remaining counties have between one and eight CEAs.
The Town of Dryden wants to designate 35 CEAs within town limits (there is only one CEA currently designated in the rest of the county, in the Town of Ithaca), which would encompass about 62% of the surface area of the town. CEA boundaries were presented as being carefully thought out and having some demonstrable reason for being drawn where they were.
Dryden Town Council, an elected board consisting of the town supervisor and 4 councilpersons, has a few unelected, unpaid advisory boards to assist them, including a Conservation Board and a Planning Board—that's in addition to a paid town Planning Department consisting of a planning director and five additional staff members…this in a 95-square-mile town with a population of 14,400, about 1/4 of whom are children.
Because of the agricultural nature of the town, when the town comprehensive plan was being adopted in 2005, it was recommended that one of the advisory boards be an agriculture board. It has yet to exist, although at a March 2012 town council meeting, names and résumés of members of the ag community willing to serve on such a board were presented to the council. It was suggested that the new ag board be charged with reviewing CEAs and that nothing final happen on CEAs until the ag board had reviewed them.
So where are we right now?
As understanding spread of what owning property (and I now use that phrase advisedly) within a CEA might entail—SEQRs, EISs, special use permit applications—so did pushback. After public resistance took various forms including attendance and speaking at town council meetings, the whole CEA document was sent back from the town council to the conservation board (CB) for more work. Unlike UNA designations years ago, CEA boundaries had been drawn up without consultation with the affected landowners; it now sounded as though the CB would be reviewing the CEAs a few at a time, but this time in consultation with the landowners involved, on a CEA-by-CEA basis.
Ummm…not so much.
What has become apparent in correspondence between the planning department and the CB is this:
- There is no intention of changing the number of CEAs or the amount of acreage in the town that will be designated as CEA property. The idea is simply to strengthen the existing CEA document against well-founded attacks from those with the audacity to question "authority."
- Changes might be made to some CEAs but the changes would be superficial rather than substantive…just enough to hopefully hoodwink the hoi polloi.
- Weekly meetings of the CB will occur with CEAs being "reviewed" in clumps of 5, so as to turn over each batch to the town council for rubber-stamping and sending on to DEC before the seating of any agricultural advisory board could take place.
- In fact, there never was any intention of letting landowners have a say in the completion of this process, a process now intended to be finished within two months.
- Why the increased sense of urgency on the part of the CB and the town council? A member of the CB said at their March meeting that they could not allow the DEC to issue its final findings on permitting drilling in NYS—thereby possibly thwarting the town's plans—before the Dryden CEA designation process was done.
- CEA boundary designations are in fact arbitrary and based on what "feels good" to the board rather than based on a process that is well-defined and reproducible from proposed CEA to proposed CEA.
- In the planner's opinion, all lands bordering a CEA will be considered an automatic buffer zone. Some townspeople had said that they thought the entire town should be designated a CEA. Sounds as though this is a step in that direction.
- Rather than sitting down with affected landowners to discuss the designation of their property as a CEA, the town will "attempt" to send landowners a notice of a relevant CB meeting or a public hearing.
14. Can reviews of actions involving CEAs be managed to avoid creating undue hardships?
…A community or agency can help reduce hardships that may be associated with the existence of a CEA if they critically evaluate the size and boundaries of the CEA when it is being drafted.
This isn't about protecting the environment. It's not about pine trees and salamanders—it's about control.
Renters may find that their landlords are unable to make changes to their property that would in fact benefit them, the tenants. Farmers end up being sharecroppers who have to ask permission of "massa" in order to do perfectly reasonable things that would not have required town involvement before.
Not only have subsurface rights been stolen by a drilling ban, now surface rights are being taken as well.
But—you still have the right to pay taxes.
If you don't think all this is a problem, go read up on "unlisted actions" and "SEQRs" and the like. The town will say that this is a tempest in a teapot—that if your property is in a CEA and you want to make changes to it, all the CEA designation will do is trigger a SEQR…an invitation, if you will, to DEC to take a closer look. No big deal…nothing to see here, move along…pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.
Think of the paperwork, the money, the crazymaking interminable reviews that will be necessary that hadn't been necessary before. And all so that you can do perfectly reasonable things—maybe, if you're given permission—on what you thought was property that you owned.
John Adams also wrote, "The moment the idea is admitted into society that property is not as sacred as the laws of God, and that there is not a force of law and public justice to protect it, anarchy and tyranny commence. If `Thou shalt not covet' and `Thou shalt not steal' were not commandments of Heaven, they must be made inviolable precepts in every society before it can be civilized or made free."
The arrogance of these people is just stunning.