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C. Critical Environmental Areas (CEAs)

In This Section You Will Learn:

  • What are Critical Environmental Areas (CEAs) and how they are designated;
  • How CEAs affect various actions under SEQR; and,
  • How CEAs affect the determination of action Type under SEQR.

1. What are "Critical Environmental Areas"?

"Critical Environmental Areas" (CEAs) are areas in the state which have been designated by a local or state agency to recognize a specific geographical area with one or more of the following characteristics:

  • A feature that is a benefit or threat to human health;
  • An exceptional or unique natural setting;
  • Exceptional or unique social, historic, archaeological, recreational or educational values; or
  • An inherent ecological, geological or hydrological sensitivity to change that may be adversely affected by any physical disturbance.

2. Who may designate a CEA?

Local or state agencies may designate a CEA under subdivision 6 NYCRR 617.14(g) (link leaves DEC website) of the SEQR regulations. Local agencies may designate specific geographic areas within their boundaries as CEAs. State agencies may also designate specific geographic areas which they own, manage or regulate, as CEAs.

3. What advantages does CEA designation offer?

A CEA designation serves to alert project sponsors to the agency's concern for the resources or dangers contained within the CEA. Once a CEA has been designated, potential impacts on the characteristics of that CEA become relevant areas of concern that warrant specific, articulated consideration in determining the significance of any Type I or Unlisted actions that may affect the CEA [see 617.7(c)(1)(iii) (link leaves DEC website) and 617.14 (g)(4)].

Often CEAs are recognized and designated because a locality sees this as an avenue to protect or ensure consideration of the resource in land use decisions

4. What is the process for designating a CEA?

Part 617.14 (g) provides the specific procedures for designating a CEA. These include public notice, hearing and filing the designation and maps with the Commissioner and others. The designation will take effect 30 days after these filings have taken place.

It should be noted that the act of designating a CEA is a discretionary decision by the designating agency and is, therefore, subject to SEQR. The action of designating a CEA should be processed as an Unlisted action unless the area proposed for designation in some way triggers a Type I review [e.g. a designated historic site (see 617.4(b)(9))]. (link leaves DEC website)

5. Are there alternative procedures to consider for use to meet the analysis, notice and hearing requirements when designating a CEA?

Yes. Here are a couple of options.

  • Prior to the required public meeting, an agency may hold an informational meeting with affected land-owners, other interested agencies and the public to consider the following:
    • The characteristics of the potential CEA that make it worth considering for designation;
    • The kind of actions that would require environmental review under SEQR by the proponent agency and by other likely involved agencies;
    • The alternatives for boundaries;
    • Any important community values which could be affected by the designation;
    • Adverse impacts likely to be incurred if the area is not designated as a CEA;
    • Management plans for the CEA. (Determine the compatible activities within and adjacent to the proposed CEA and propose special mitigation measures, acceptable impact thresholds, or compatible future actions.)
  • Prepare a Generic EIS on the proposed CEA. Although a particular CEA designation may warrant a negative determination of significance, a concise Generic EIS on a proposed CEA could provide an effective tool to adequately inform landowners, the general public, and the decision-makers reviewing the CEA proposal.

6. What are some alternatives to CEA designation?

Some alternatives to designating an area as a CEA might be:

  • Adoption of direct controls, such as local wetland, steep slope, aquifer protection districts, or ordinances;
  • Acquisition of an area by a public or not-for-profit entity, plus adoption and implementation of a management plan; and,
  • Identification of an area for which an individual agency establishes a policy to require a Full EAF and coordinated review for all or certain kinds of Unlisted actions.

7. What are examples of CEAs designated because of potential threats to human health?

A CEA designated because of a threat would be something that the municipality or agency would want people to be aware of so that harm to people or inappropriate use of the affected area could be avoided. Examples might be:

  • An inactive hazardous waste site;
  • A steep slope area with the potential for landslides;
  • A high river bank or cliff area with dangerously high erosion potential; or
  • An area that is often prone to dangerous flash floods.

8. Does designating an area as a CEA ensure long term protection or maintenance comparable to that afforded by land use controls?

No. Designation of a CEA does not substitute for, nor does it provide, governmental protection afforded by land use controls such as zoning, or acquisition of restrictive easements, or purchase and direct management. Thus, CEAs cannot be considered as a type of development control. In fact, when an agency lacks a specific jurisdiction over an action within a CEA (for example, a local government without zoning or subdivision regulations) it cannot act as an involved agency in any environmental review for that action, even if it is the local government that actually designated the CEA.

9. Does the designation of a CEA create a new jurisdiction for the designating agency?

No. The designation of a CEA does not create a new jurisdiction for the designating agency. The designation of a CEA gives the sponsor of any action in or substantially contiguous to the area a heightened sense of awareness of the importance of the area. It raises a red flag that there are significant concerns that should be taken into account when any agency is reviewing that action. As discussed in #6 above, it does not grant any agency permitting authority, zoning restrictions, or other jurisdictions that did not already exist before the designation of the CEA.

10. Are Type II actions changed to Type I or Unlisted if they are in a CEA?

No. Type II actions never require environmental review under SEQR. The fact that such actions may occur in or proximal to a CEA does not change their classification.

11. Are Unlisted actions occurring within or substantially contiguous to a CEA automatically considered Type I actions?

No. A CEA does not affect the type classification of an action. In fact, the 1996 changes in SEQR eliminated this previous automatic "elevation" of SEQR actions to Type 1. As now written, only those actions within or contiguous to a CEA that would normally be Type I anywhere else, as per 617.4, are considered Type 1.

12. Will every action in a CEA result in an EIS?

No. Not every action in a CEA requires an EIS. However, potential impacts on attributes or resources which led to the special designation of the area must be addressed in a determination of significance.

13. How can a reviewer determine whether a particular action may impact the environmental characteristics for which a CEA was designated?

Once you know that a proposed action is in, or substantially contiguous to, a CEA, it is a good idea to reach out to the agency that made the CEA designation to understand why the CEA was designated and its characteristics. Once you know why an area became a CEA, it is much easier to determine if your proposed action will have a significant adverse environmental impact.

A link to a listing of all the designated CEAs in the state, by county, is available on the SEQR pages of the DEC website. Where available, a link to a map of the designated CEA has also been provided. The Division of Environmental Permits, DEC, 625 Broadway, Albany, NY l2233-1750, also maintains a listing of all designated CEAs.

Additionally, information on CEAs is also available in the offices of each DEC Region. For CEAs filed after June 1, l987, the DEC regions may have copies of general maps of these CEAs. These maps may be viewed in DEC offices, however, they often are not reproducible. Note that several CEAs have no maps associated with them, but do have boundary descriptions. Detailed information about any CEA, and additional copies of maps, should be obtained from the agency which designated the CEA.

14. Can reviews of actions involving CEAs be managed to avoid creating undue hardships?

The designation as a CEA should not overly burden the review and consideration of actions in or contiguous to it. The existence or creation of a CEA does not alter the classification of an action in terms of SEQR Type. However, all actions of any state and local agency that affect a designated CEA area do require careful reasoned documentation and explanations regarding the impact on an area of important environmental concern. Coordinated review during a SEQR review, while not absolutely required, may be a good course of action to assess all potential negative impacts.

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.

E-mail us if you wish to submit comments. Please be sure to indicate which section or item you are commenting on, and include your name.

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