Part IV. The SEQRA Process & Conclusion:
The SEQRA process is set forth in ENV Article 8 and its implementing regulatons, 6 NYCRR Part 617 (State Environmental Quality Review, SEQR). As described in the SEQR Handbook (p.3) :
“SEQR establishes a process to systematically consider environmental factors early in the planning stages of actions that are directly undertaken, funded or approved by local, regional and state agencies. By incorporating environmental review early in the planning stages, projects can be modified as needed to avoid adverse impacts on the environment.”
The availability of State funds for the Project was announced in early 2015, the site for the Project was announced in September, 2015, and we just got around to SEQR in 2018 when the Oneida County Industrial Development Agency made a Positive Declaration. Does that sound like “incorporating environmental review early in the planning stages” so that “projects can be modified as needed to avoid adverse impacts on the environment?” Why was SEQR not part of the planning of the Project from the very beginning, including the choice of the site? As noted under Part I Section I, the site of a project is an appropriate consideration under SEQR, and the State promulgated a non-exhaustive list of those actions considered to have significant adverse impacts (6 NYCRR 617.7(c)(1)). This could have been used to help screen or rank the sites – but it was not.
People may disagree with how the regulations were applied or sites ranked in Part III above, however, the process only took a few hours. This Project deserved at least that level of attention being paid to the environmental consequences of site selection. Most people would probably intuitively conclude that trying to shoehorn a hospital with acres of parking into the middle of a Central Business District that was built for another era, another style of development, and a different purpose would be more disruptive to the environment than locating the hospital on a site that had enough room and had been specifically designed for that use. It is no surprise that the choice of site is still a controversial topic after three years.
For a major project such as this, ENV 8-0109 requires preparation of an EIS. The regulations make clear that a government agency cannot undertake, fund or approve of an action until it has complied with the provisions of SEQR (see 6 NYCRR 617.3 (a)). But that is, in deed, what happened at least as far back as Summer 2016 when Oneida County put county employees, and Utica put city employees (the Planning Board’s Staff), to the task of engaging in regular meetings with MVHS to help plan for the Project at the Downtown Site, because government employee time is money.
If the applicability of SEQR and need for an EIS was not apparent to the local authorities at that point in time, then it should have been apparent when the County approved funding for MVEDGE to provide property appraisal services for MVHS aiding the pursuit of the Downtown Site. The County should have stopped further action and opened the SEQR process then, but it did not. Nothing was done about SEQR until there was an “application” that triggered a review – but, as noted above, the law wants the environment taken into consideration “early in the planning stages” so that “projects can be modified as needed to avoid adverse impacts on the environment.” Here, the County and City had employees planning this project without the environmental information required by law. It is a shame that so much time and money was spent on a flawed process.
Like the Site Selection Process appears to have been tainted by undue influence, the entire EIS appears tainted as well. People who have personally invested their time toward securing the Project for Downtown will have difficulty focusing on another site – an impossibility for those where the alternate site is in another jurisdiction.
At this point in time the Planning Board is faced with (1) an EIS that cannot support a SEQR finding because St. Luke’s appears to be the environmentally superior site and (2) having to give up jurisdiction because it has no legal authority in New Hartford.
The EIS must be rejected as inadequate, and the process reopened for a new Lead Agency to produce a revised Draft EIS that addresses all the open issues identified herein.