Blogs > Docket > Legal victory helps New Paltz – and communities across NY – protect vital wetlands

Legal victory helps New Paltz – and communities across NY – protect vital wetlands

Humpo Marsh in New Paltz, courtesy Laura Heady

Humpo Marsh in New Paltz, courtesy Laura Heady

When a group of landowners successfully sued over a local wetlands law, there was much at stake.

New Paltz, like other communities across New York, wanted to protect vital wetland areas that provide habitats, filter pollution and absorb water in a form of flood control. But a judge’s ruling in Ulster County Supreme Court struck down the town’s law in 2012.

Thanks in part to the Pace Environmental Litigation Clinic, representing Riverkeeper, the Wetland and Watercourse Protection Law is back on the books. And the ability of other communities to protect wetlands from irresponsible destruction is restored as a result.

Property owners contended that the regulations were unconstitutionally vague, because the town hadn’t mapped every single wetlands boundary – a wasteful and unnecessary step. Like many municipalities, New Paltz instead defined the areas it intended to regulate within the law. It relied on state and federal maps of larger wetlands, and further delineated wetland boundaries during the development approval process.

When New Paltz appealed the ruling to Appellate Division, Third Department, the Pace clinic provided critical information to the court. Its amicus curiae, or “friend of the court” brief, demonstrated that there was nothing unique or onerous about the approach that New Paltz took in its wetlands law.

Based on extensive research by legal intern Lauren Bachtel, the brief listed 78 wetlands laws meant to protect wetlands too small to warrant federal or state protection, together with links and information about how the laws were implemented.

That information helped inform the court’s analysis of the law. Instead of overturning the town’s law – and opening the floodgates to similar legal challenges to similar local laws around the state – the appellate panel ruled unanimously on the side of New Paltz.

The need to protect wetlands will only grow as more significant weather events increase the need for flood control, said Daniel Estrin, supervising attorney for the Pace clinic. “This decision is very important not only for residents of the Town of New Paltz, but also for so many similarly situated municipalities that may previously have been reluctant to adopt similar local laws out of fear of litigation. We hope the court’s decision today will encourage additional protection of the State’s natural resources by emboldening other municipalities that may previously have been ‘gun-shy.’”

As New Paltz Supervisor Sue Zimet told the Times Herald-Record, “the importance and integrity of wetlands is more important than ever before.”

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