Essex County supervisors: Nesting study is for the birds

ELIZABETHTOWN – Essex County supervisors are not happy about birds getting in the way of their public radio system project.

County Attorney Dan Manning explained at a Monday special meeting of the county Board of Supervisors that the state Adirondack Park Agency permit for the expansive radio communications project includes conditions that limit construction. The project includes installing communications towers on 14 peaks around the area.

According to the APA’s order approving the project, the county has to hire an independent environmental specialist to complete a study of the four peaks with elevations higher than 2,800 feet to check whether a rare species of bird called Bicknell’s thrush, which is protected under Environmental Conservation Law, nests there.

If the study finds that there are no nesting pairs of Bicknell’s thrushes, Essex County is free to construct its communication towers on the peaks. But if a study is not done, or if it finds that there are Bicknell’s thrush nesting there, the county won’t be able to use heavy machinery, gas-powered generators, air compressors and pneumatic tools between the bird’s nesting period of May 15 to Aug. 1.

Essex County supervisors raged against the requirement Monday. County Manager Dan Palmer explained that the APA feels that the noise of heavy construction equipment would disturb the birds’ mating.

Moriah Supervisor Thomas Scozzafava jokingly suggested they blast Barry White music to help the birds mate.

Supervisor George Canon of Newcomb, said the project management people at the APA and state Department of Environmental Conservation told the county their requirements wouldn’t hold up construction.

“It’s very frustrating that we’ve got to worry about mating habits with birds,” Canon said.

Gerald Morrow of Chesterfield said it’s frustrating when the state prioritizes birds and insects before human lives, since the project is one that is intended to improve public safety.

“It’s just totally ridiculous, but they got you,” Morrow said. “You’ve got to do this.”

Wilmington Supervisor Randy Preston noted that the main area of concern for the Bicknell’s thrush is in his town on Little Whiteface, on the peak of which there is already plenty of other equipment, including ski lift apparatus.

“There isn’t a single tree being cut,” Preston said.

He said he would hate to see an itemized list of the costs of the project associated with environmental studies and assessments to satisfy the concerns of the various state agencies.

“It would be horrifying,” Preston said. “It’s one hurdle after another after another after another.”

If the county can’t start construction until after the bird’s mating season, Palmer said the contractor expects to be able to get the shell of a building up and get heat in it, but the costs of the project will increase due to the delay.

Scozzafava suggested that the county ignore the requirement and just build the towers. He said the agencies concerned with the birds should be the ones spending the money to study them.

“Why don’t they study the damn bird?” Scozzafava asked.

The board approved hiring an independent environmental specialist to complete the study, but several members noted they were voting in favor of it begrudgingly.

APA spokesman Keith McKeever said no construction can happen on Little Whiteface until an amendment to the unit management plan for the Whiteface Mountain Intensive Use Area is completed anyway. He said the APA, DEC and the state Olympic Regional Development Agency are working on that plan, and he expects it to go before the APA board in May.

He noted that without the study, Essex County is limited in its use of heavy equipment, but the condition would still allow some construction activity.

McKeever said Essex County had a good working relationship with the APA while the two entities were working together on the project as they approached the APA’s December 2012 approval.

“I know there is an important need for the emergency services, and we’re doing our best to continue moving it forward,” McKeever said. “We’re going to do everything we can to make sure they meet their construction schedule.”