Poughkeepsie Journal Editorial
Sunday, December 1, 2002

Environment gets rare court break

A federal judge's ruling has done more than temporarily stop the state from pushing forward on a new access road into Stewart International Airport. It also stopped, for now, a recent legal trend to deny citizens the right to protect the environment.

New York officials were so sure of their proposal that they went ahead with construction -- even though opponents had taken them to court. But U.S. District Court Magistrate Judge Randolph Treece was right to block this obstinate rush to develop, allowing time for the legal questions to settle. In the long run, his decision may not slow the state down much, but it should remind officials to take citizen-activists more seriously.

The argument isn't over whether a better access road is needed to the New Windsor facility. It is. Big numbers of residents aren't likely to start flying from Stewart as long as there's no easy connection from the Thruway or Interstate 84. Drivers have to negotiate a thicket of often-congested local highways instead.

The argument, rather, is over where to put the new access road. Department of Transportation and Thruway chiefs have made up their minds to build new interchanges on I-84 so airport traffic can run south on Drury Lane, currently a country road. Drury would then be connected with Stewart through the airport's ''C'' Street.

But a coalition of nonprofit organizations is equally determined to prevent the road from being built there. They object to taking public land west of the airport -- popular with sportsmen and nature lovers -- for highway use. SPARC, the Stewart Park and Reserve Coalition, brought the suit along with an environmentalist group, the Sierra Club and the Orange County Federation of Sportsmen's Clubs.

State should have done full review

Their suit raises a serious contention: that the state is "segmenting'' the entire project -- pretending that the interchanges, the Drury Lane improvements and the connection to ''C'' Street are really a group of unrelated proposals -- so it never has to face public scrutiny as a whole. Even if this is the best location for the access road, there's plenty of reason to do the thorough environmental review these groups demand. After all, this is a major development proposal that inevitably will bring significant changes to the entire region.

However, state officials argued otherwise -- and, in September, Treece ruled in their favor. In fact, his decision was almost fawning, unquestioningly taking the side of state agencies, and failing to take resident's concerns seriously.

This ruling could have chilling effects. If the law is interpreted that narrowly, citizens won't have a chance in court against government-sponsored development projects. More frightening yet, this is just one of several recent court rulings that have set back this vital public right.

It's hard to believe the same Judge Treece responsible for the September ruling is now chastizing state officials. Since they went forward ''while litigation was ongoing,'' he wrote, ''any injury incurred by the state was ... from the state's hastiness.'' He rightly noted that the U.S. Court of Appeals -- which will hear SPARC's appeal -- could overturn his September decision. To give the higher court time to review the case, Treece ordered construction to halt.

This stay is unlikely to have much immediate effect on New York's plans at Stewart, since little road work can be done in the winter anyway. Given the anti-citizen flavor of court rulings lately, state officials are probably confident they will eventually beat back SPARC's lawsuit.

But, maybe not. Treece's recent ruling was a surprise. Maybe the Court of Appeals will issue another one.

State officials should do a full environmental review of the entire access road project -- and not be so sure opponents have no chance of stopping it.