Voters in three Adirondack counties opposed the constitutional amendment
By Zachary Matson
As New Yorkers on Tuesday resoundingly approved a new constitutional right to “clean air and water, and a healthful environment,” three Adirondack counties opposed the ballot proposal.
The majority of voters across the 12 counties that make up the Adirondack Park supported the new environmental privilege, but voters in Fulton, Lewis and Hamilton counties rejected the effort.
Opponents of the measure have raised concerns that its lack of definition and specificity could open the door to a wave of environmental litigation and increased regulation.
“There are no parameters to this law, and what are the effects or impacts to residents?” Lewis County Legislature Chair Lawrence Dolhof said in a Wednesday interview. “It’s way too open, and it defines nothing. What does this mean? It’s a legal field day.”
Dolhof, who voted against the measure, said many Lewis County residents already think the Adirondack Park Agency and other state agencies have created an overly-strict regulatory environment and limited recreational access to snowmobiling. He said the new environmental right is likely to compound those regulations.
“We are constantly battling with the Department of Environmental Conservation and the Adirondack Park Agency to provide core (snowmobile) trails to access (the park), it’s constant,” Dolhof said.
Since Hamilton and Essex counties are the only counties entirely included in the park, it’s not clear how residents living within the park boundary voted on the measure. (Ten counties have different-sized populations living both within and outside the park boundaries.)
But an analysis of the vote in the 12 counties with at least some portion within the park shows that voters in those counties supported the new constitutional privilege with 54 percent in favor and 40 percent opposed.
Among the Adirondack counties, voters in Franklin and Warren counties were the most supportive of the amendment, with just over 60 percent in those counties voting in favor, near the statewide approval rate of 61 percent. Voter approval in Clinton, Essex and Saratoga counties topped 55 percent. None of the Adirondack counties, though, were as supportive of the measure as the state as a whole. Nearly 12 percent of voters statewide left the ballot question blank.
Statewide the amendment drew the most support from Tompkins County, home to Ithaca, where nearly 75 percent of voters supported the measure. The ballot proposal also drew significant support from New York City, where New York, Bronx and Queens counties all approved the question with more than 65 percent support. New York County alone registered nearly as many yes votes as total votes cast in the 12 Adirondack counties.
Environmental groups, including the Adirondack Mountain Club and Adirondack Council, on Wednesday cheered passage of the new right, but environmental lawyers have said the vague language of the amendment leaves a lot of unanswered questions about how the new right will play out in the courts - where over time it will be more clearly defined through precedents.
Maya van Rossum, the Delaware River waterkeeper in Pennsylvania and an environmental advocate who coined the term “green amendment” and is working to gain voter support in over a dozen more states, on Wednesday said New York is now the third state with a right to clean air and water enshrined in its state bill of rights, following Pennsylvania and Montana.
Van Rossum said government agencies and private actors in New York will now have to consider decisions in the context of the state’s new constitutional right and that citizens can challenge environmental laws, decisions and actions that have disproportionate racial impacts or wide scale negative impacts.
She highlighted how in Pennsylvania the environmental right reemerged as a powerful legal tool after she and others challenged a law favoring hydraulic fracturing. Her group won the argument that fracking would undermine residents’ right to a clean environment.
“(One thing) the people of New York can look forward to is really using the green amendment to check bad governmental action, it’s a check on government,” she said. “(In Pennsylvania) we stopped bad environmental laws before they started.”
Van Rossum also cautioned that environmental advocates and lawyers must target serious violations when using the new legal right, suggesting that frivolous claims could minimize the effectiveness of the new right. She said the constitutional privilege emerges as a major factor in about 10 cases a year in Pennsylvania and Montana.
“This isn’t going to be used every time someone is concerned about an environmental decision, a constitutional challenge is a high bar. It’s not that people willy-nilly cite (the environmental right), because if you do that we run the risk of setting bad law,” van Rossum said. “To know exactly where that bar is, that will take time, just like with other fundamental rights.”