Andrew J Lanza

May 09, 2011

On Thursday, the New York State Senate passed a bill which would never have been necessary but for the zealotry of the state Department of Environmental Protection.

The measure, sponsored by state Sen. Andrew Lanza, would force the DEC to allow the unrestricted removal of phragmites and other fire-prone weeds from state-regulated wetland areas.

The debate over the eradication of phragmites, which serve as abundant tinder for dangerous brush fires, has been a fascinating and infuriating story of the ideological intransigence of a government agency even in the face of a serious threat to citizens.

The DEC has long refused to allow anyone to touch phragmites at all, even though the willowy reeds that flourish in wetlands are notorious for catching fire during the warm-weather months and burning for hours, threatening the property and safety of those who live nearby. That’s not to mention the threat to all the firefighters who must fight these blazes and the cost to the taxpayers for their effort.

Then, a few years ago, at the urging of Borough President James Molinaro, the DEC finally relented and said that property owners could cut back the aggressive weeds up to 50 feet from their property lines - but only with a DEC permit. The agency recently increased the allowance for clearing phragmites firebreaks to 100 feet in certain areas.

The question a lot of Staten Islanders have had is why people have to seek the DEC’s permission to get rid of phragmites at all. Phragmites are hardly worth protecting. They are not native to this region and are nothing more than an invasive species of giant weeds which make a notoriously volatile fuel for fires that menace many Staten Island communities every year.

Whatever aesthetic attraction they may have is far outweighed by their the hazard they pose. Yet, the ever-territorial DEC has always been far more interested in protecting these nuisance plants than in protecting the lives and property of people who live near the open areas that contain them.
Hence the DEC’s needlessly convoluted set of regulations governing the removal of phragmites - including rules about what kind of equipment can be used to cut them down. Yet every spring, summer and fall, countless homes that abut wetland areas are threatened by phragmites-fueled brush fires.


Now Sen. Lanza’s bill would force some common sense on the DEC, however reluctant the agency is to surrender its right to obstruct.

“This new legislation would prevent the DEC from thwarting property owners the right to protect their property,” Mr. Lanza said. “Homeowners should not have to ask permission of the DEC to protect their homes and lives.”


And Mid-Island Assemblyman Michael Cusick and South Shore Assemblyman Lou Tobacco are fully on board with this thinking. They’ve sponsored a companion bill in the Assembly which is now making the rounds of various relevant committees.

Getting the measure out of committee, onto the floor for a vote and passed in the more environmentally sensitive Assembly will be a heavier lift, but Mr. Cusick and Mr. Tobacco are doing their bipartisan best. Mr. Cusick has taken the unusual step of sending a memo to the Assembly Committee on Cities insisting that this measure must be brought out for a vote.

There is absolutely no reason phragmites should be protected any more than ragweed. Only the DEC’s obsession with all things wetlands has somehow relegated them into a higher class of flora. In fact, considering the threat phragmites pose to lives and property, there’s all the more reason to eliminate the DEC’s officious regulations. The DEC should be seeking to get rid of these weeds in light of its primary responsibility to the public.

Let’s hope Messrs. Cusick and Tobacco can bring this central point home to their Assembly colleagues.

Published: Monday, May 09, 2011, 7:30 AM     Updated: Monday, May 09, 2011, 7:31 AM