An image of White Pine Commerce Park, where Micron plans to put its chip plants. Credit: Courtesy of Onondaga County

A Syracuse state senator is proposing that New York waive components of environmental reviews for some apartment buildings, in an effort to more quickly build affordable housing without sprawl. 

“We have a crisis in New York and in this region in terms of the amount of affordable housing that’s available,” said Sen. Rachel May, Democrat from Syracuse. 

Her proposed legislation would apply to apartment buildings constructed in areas that already have connections to sewer and water systems. Qualifying projects would be exempt from environmental reviews, and the law would also prevent legal challenges that can stall development. 

May said the proposal came about because of Central New York’s shortage of affordable housing. She said elevated housing prices are caused by a scarcity of available units. Fast tracking the building of apartments would help alleviate the burden on renters, May said.

It could also remove barriers on the development of dense, walkable communities – a topic of local interest as Micron develops its microchip factory site in Clay, and demand for housing is expected to increase exponentially over the next two decades. 

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May’s proposal still has several hurdles to clear, including a Senate committee, before it could be presented for a vote. May said she hopes to pass the bill before the state budget is approved in spring. 

The bill would waive some portions of environmental reviews, but would leave in place testing for lead, radon and asbestos as well as drinking water and wetland mitigation requirements. 

The bill would also limit reasons for which someone could sue to challenge an environmental review. Parties would no longer be able to challenge reviews over factors such as neighborhood character or traffic impacts. 

“The process of getting housing projects approved is really onerous,” May said. “It either drives developers away or it makes it more expensive to develop and harder to develop actual affordable housing.” 

Environmental reviews were created by the State Environmental Quality Review Act, commonly called SEQRA, in 1975, to prevent top-down development and put in place more environmental restrictions. 

If the bill becomes law, municipalities with more than 90,000 people could allow SEQRA exemptions for projects with fewer than 500 housing units. Municipalities with fewer than 90,000 people could allow for SEQRA exemptions for projects with fewer than 200 housing units. 

Any project that gets an exemption would have to be in an “urbanized area” or “urban cluster” as defined by the most recent U.S. Census. 

New York is one of only seven states that require an environmental review.

May said she didn’t have statistics to show how onerous the SEQRA process can be for developers locally in Central New York. 

But in New York City, a nonprofit research watchdog evaluated the effects of SEQRA on development and found that the threat of legal action has a chilling effect on development proposals.

May said she hopes the bill incentivizes more development in areas that have already been developed – and in turn, more walkable, livable communities.

“We want to make sure the rules we have will result in the housing we want,” May said. “Right now, there’s a mismatch there.” 

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Chris Libonati

Chris Libonati covers government, accountability and equity. Have a tip? Contact Chris at 585-290-0718 or libonati@centralcurrent.org.