Laura Tessier
Program Director, Westchester County Soil and Water Conservation District
Westchester County, New York

An awardee in the local government category, Laura Tessier has shown extraordinary leadership in expanding an assistance program for local governments in matters of soil and water conservation to incorporate the broad-based environmental planning and review services needed to protect wetland resources seriously threatened by development. She is credited with enhancing the content and quality of the district program to ensure municipal access to sound policy guidance and technical assistance in matters of wetland protection. Moreover, Laura has developed innovative and progressive management tools to guide local governments toward better stewardship of this resource.

Laura joined the district in 1982, and became its first director both educated and experienced as an environmental professional. Under her direction, the district staff grew to include two professional hydrologists and the program was expanded and modified to provide in-depth consulting services to municipalities that needed assistance in reviewing development proposals for soils limitations, surface water management, wetlands and watercourse protection, and erosion control. Due to the strength of the program Laura developed, and the spirit of intergovemmental cooperation she engendered, requests for district involvement in development reviews increased from 24 in 1982 to nearly 300 in 1989. Moreover, as a result of the area’s continuing development and increasing scarcity of nonwetland sites, questions concerning wetland delineation and regulation began to accompany the more traditional requests for surface water management review. In 1985, the catalyst for formalizing the district’s wetland assistance program was the town of Harrison’s request for comment on a proposed major development within its jurisdiction.

The original plan was for the construction of 215 residential units on a property presented as including only 2.7 acres of wetland. During the development review phase, however, Laura and her staff noted a significant on-site wetland that later was determined to be greater than 50 acres. Subsequent work on the site resulted in state regulation of a portion of this wetland area under the 1975 Freshwater Wetland Act, and local designation of even more wetland acres. At the request of the Town Planning Board, Laura participated in nearly two years of meeting and discussions with the developer, shaping a plan that obviated unnecessary encroachment on both the wetland and its 100-foot buffer.

The Harrison project pointed to the need for improved local legislation and government access to wetland expertise to adequately protect these wetland systems from development. Moreover, it highlighted deficiencies in the state law, such as the insufficient criteria used to define and classify wetlands and the lack of mechanisms to address cumulative and indirect impacts. Thus, drawing on her professional training and prior experience as a consulting wetland ecologist, Laura led the District Board of Directors to formalize wetlands protection as a component of their program. In 1986, on her initiative, the Board adopted a “Wetlands Protection Policy,” which set the stage for a three-part program designed to standardize and enhance the role of local governments in protecting an estimated 28,000 acres of wetlands remaining in the county.

The wetland policy that she developed committed the district to: (1) prepare, publish, and disseminate to Westchester municipalities a Model Ordinance for Wetlands Protection designed to provide protection beyond the requirements of the state law and to emphasize site-specific evaluation; (2) include in proposed development reviews both comments on potential impacts to wetland areas and recommended measures for their protection; (3) assist municipalities in verifying wetland boundaries according to soils, vegetation, and hydrologic criteria; (4) assist communities in documenting wetlands that may qualify for regulation pursuant to New York State law; and (5) provide educational programming and materials to municipal boards and staffs to, encourage informed decisionmaking in matters of wetland protection. In addition, Laura asked the Board to formally discourage the alteration of wetlands vegetation, habitat, or function for timber management, pond construction, or cultivation, unless district staff determined that the proposed action would not adversely impact wetland functions. And on Laura’s recommendation, the Board determined that the alteration of wetlands to accommodate the stormwater management requirements associated with development should be discouraged unless demonstrated to be necessary and unavoidable.

To date, Laura has delivered the essential elements promised in the 1986 policy. In October 1988, she single-handedly organized and conducted the first annual wetland training seminar designed specifically to educate and inform members of local boards and staffs involved in wetland management. The pilot session, which provided both lecture and field segments, was fully subscribed with 100 people representing four counties, and received overwhelmingly positive reviews.

In December 1988, Laura completed a year of research and writing of the district’s Model Ordinance for Wetlands Protection, which was published in January 1989. The ordinance, reviewed by various wetland professionals and the Board’s environmental attorney prior to publication, is nearing adoption in two Westchester communities and is under review in at least seven others. I am told that it has been adopted by several communities in neighboring counties, and it has been purchased by agencies and organizations in 26 states across the country.

Laura has restructured the district site development review program to address wetland impacts as a separate concern. And in a continuing effort to enhance municipal consideration of wetlands and watercourses, Laura provides routine assistance in verifying wetland boundaries, reviewing permit applications, and advising in matters of wetland policy and management.

As the Director of one municipal planning department in Westchester has stated, “Laura has become the model for provision of cooperative government resources ... the Model Ordinance for Wetlands Protection may be the single most useful planning document to have been produced by Westchester County.” And in the words of another, “Laura’s persistence and dedication are an inspiration to those of us ... battling at the local level for greater wetlands protection.” I wholeheartedly concur.

-Carol Coggeshall, Chairperson, Board of Directors, Westchester County Soil and Water Conservation District, White Plains, New York