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Take care with Irene waivers

Jarrid and Michelle Gonyea of Wilmington, N.Y., check

Jarrid and Michelle Gonyea of Wilmington, N.Y., check out storm damage on Hurricane Road caused by Tropical Storm Irene in the Town of Keene, in New York's Adirondacks (Aug. 29, 2011). Credit: AP

To speed the repairs that upstate property owners and communities must make after Tropical Storm Irene, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo says that two key state agencies will waive normal permitting requirements there. In the short term, that's not a bad idea. But the waivers need to be well-defined and short-lived. History -- in the 1996 Catskills flooding, for example -- has shown that loosening regulatory reins for too long can lead to lasting environmental damage.

Cuomo came into office promising to make New York friendlier to business. That means taking a hard look at the regulatory environment -- to make sure it isn't unnecessarily throttling economic activity. Even as the Adirondack Park Agency and the Department of Environmental Conservation ease permitting over the next few weeks to make upstate recovery from Irene easier, the governor should continue the long-term effort to find the right regulatory balance.

In a report last year by New York University School of Law's Institute for Policy Integrity, the state got the discouraging mark of D+ for its process of reviewing regulations. One of Cuomo's goals should be to make our state a model for the nation: tightening rules that don't adequately protect New Yorkers from harm, but loosening those that slow job growth without sufficient benefit.

For now, there's the question of waivers in response to the vast flood, crop and road damage from Irene in upstate counties. The Catskill flooding in 1996, caused by rain and melting snow, is instructive. After the waters came the bulldozers, freed of the usual regulatory restraints, clearing streams and fixing roads. But by the end of that year, many grumbled that the repairs had caused as much damage as the flooding, especially to trout streams in an area where the rod and the fly are crucial to the tourist economy. Trout Unlimited, an organization of anglers, said the repair work had damaged tributaries where trout spawn.

Just a couple of weeks ago, Cuomo won kudos from that group for signing a bill requiring anyone withdrawing 100,000 gallons or more a day from the state's waters to get a permit from DEC. If the waivers for Irene repairs end up hurting habitat, though, Cuomo -- who himself enjoys fishing -- won't look so trout-friendly.

In the vast 6 million-plus acres of Adirondack Park, a checkerboard of publicly owned land and private holdings, the private owners have struggled with the Adirondack Park Agency since the state created it 40 years ago. The tension is constant between preservation of a priceless resource for everyone and freedom of owners to do what they wish with their land. But the waivers granted for Irene repairs shouldn't be taken as carte blanche to channel streams and use bulldozers in ways that aren't really related to the storm damage.

Critics of the 1996 Catskill waivers say that the worst of the repair damage occurred long after the flooding. So the lesson for Cuomo is that the waivers need to be focused narrowly on affected areas upstate, closely watched and quickly ended, once repairs from the storm have been completed. Allowing them to continue beyond a couple of months is an invitation to environmental degradation and abuse. hN