Town's lax tree laws fuel anger Small penalty for removal by Amherst developer riles neighbors - The Buffalo News

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Town's lax tree laws fuel anger Small penalty for removal by Amherst developer riles neighbors

William Huntress has spent much of the last three years cutting down thousands of trees, filling in wetlands and digging drainage ditches on property he owns near Wehrle Drive in Amherst -- all in violation of town and federal law.

Yet flouting the community and the law has come fairly cheaply: a $1,000 fine.

"This is really a joke, and Huntress knows it's a joke," said Ann Suchyna, one of Huntress' most outspoken critics. "It's such an insult to the taxpayers, the Amherst residents. He basically has wiped out the forest."

"That is just absolutely disgusting," said Greg Wicks, another neighbor.

Suchyna, Wicks and others contend that Huntress escapes tough sanctions because local laws are fundamentally weak, enforcement at all levels is poor and Huntress has the money and legal clout to make opponents miserable. He has intimidated neighbors and sued or ignored those who have tried to stop him.

Huntress declined to comment for this story, citing lawsuits filed in the last few months -- one he filed against the town and another that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency filed against him.

Despite a number of successful, high-profile developments throughout Erie County, Huntress has run afoul of his neighbors in Amherst and many local and environmental officials.

In 1997, he paid slightly less than$1 million for the Wehrle Drive parcel, a marshy area bordered by residences on two sides. Huntress had plans for offices, but discovered that a 50-year EPA moratorium prevented developers of wetlands from hooking into water and sewer lines in that area.

Huntress' reputation as a tree killer sprouted early on July 1, 2006, when he sent workers with heavy machinery to clear property of hundreds of trees he didn't have permits to remove.
Amherst Supervisor Satish B. Mohan sent police to the scene and then showed up personally to halt the work.

"I was told I can't trespass; only the building commissioner has the authority," the supervisor recalled. "I said, 'I don't care. Bulldoze me.' "

Though the town brought Huntress' company up on misdemeanor charges for violating its tree-cutting laws on that occasion and two others in 2006 and 2007, the Erie County district attorney's office did not settle the matter until this past July, allowing the developer to plead guilty to cutting down two trees.

"There's laws in the books. How can an individual do this?" asked Tom Galanes, a nearby resident. "I never expected this. I can't believe it."

Building Commissioner Thomas Ketchum opened up a thick file filled with notes, detailing all the times town inspectors had gone to court against Huntress.

"It's just annoying how time-consuming this is," he said. "This, in my mind, does not serve as a deterrent."

Residents along bordering Bellingham Drive have fought the Wehrle Drive development for years.

The Amherst Town Board originally backed the office project and sought waivers to allow Huntress to tap into sewer and water lines along Wehrle. But it later withdrew its support.

Three months later, Huntress' workers began mowing down trees on the property.

The town charged him with violating the town's tree ordinance, which requires a permit to cut down trees larger than 4 inches in diameter on large parcels. The EPA eventually charged him with disturbing several acres of wetlands in violation of the Clean Water Act.

But the July 2006 incident was the beginning, not the end, of a long pattern of tree cutting, excavation and drainage on that property.

A detailed land survey of the wooded parcel in 2002 showed more than 4,700 trees larger than 4 inches in diameter.

Fewer than 1,000 remain today.

Homes and shallow-rooted evergreen trees on Bellingham Drive that the wooded property once shielded from the west wind and airport noise are sheltered no longer, residents said.

"We blame a lot of this whole scenario, of this barren property, on the town not upholding the law," Suchyna said.

Ketchum and Mohan readily admit that the town's tree-cutting laws are weak.

A code enforcement officer has to fill out several sheets of paper for each tree cut without a permit. In July 2006, a town employee at the site wrote in his report that he believed 250 to 300 trees had been cut down.

But because of the paperwork involved, he only cited Acquest Development, Huntress' company, for 30.

Bellingham Drive residents said that only proves that Huntress knows how to work the system and the town is too afraid of Huntress' clout to do more.

"His philosophy is, 'I've got money to pay for fines, and it's better to beg for forgiveness than ask for permission,' " said Vince LoTempio, a neighbor. "He's made it personal with people in the neighborhood."

And "personal" is how residents are taking it. They have shot hundreds of photos, and some video, allegedly showing misdeeds by Huntress and his workers. They also have complained of being bullied and intimidated by the developer.

"I think it's terrible that just because he's got money, he can get away with what he wants to," said Bob Weslowski, a neighbor.

Huntress has distributed photos showing illegal drainage pipes and dumping from Bellingham homes onto his property. He sued some of the neighbors for the illegal pipes and disputes all EPA claims regarding their jurisdiction over his properties, stating that his properties do not contain federally protected wetlands.

Criminal defense attorney Paul Cambria has defended Huntress against some of the tree-cutting allegations, and his firm continues to represent Acquest's interests.

Huntress recently filed a lawsuit against Amherst -- his second -- claiming that the town has interfered with his rights to develop property. His last lawsuit against the town in 2006 was dismissed and is now under appeal.

In July, the U.S. Justice Department sued Acquest on behalf of the EPA, charging violations of the Clean Water Act for moving dirt within mapped wetlands and building drainage ditches to remove water from the property.

The Justice Department also filed a separate suit against Huntress making similar allegations about the clearing of his 100-acre property at Millersport Highway and Transit Road in Amherst. A preliminary injunction has been granted against the developer in that matter.

Ketchum and Mohan, meanwhile, say they still want the Town Board to put more teeth in the town's tree-cutting laws.

"Our laws are weak; our enforcement is weak; and big business knows it," Mohan said.

In January, the Amherst Town Board discussed tightening the town's tree-cutting laws to impose harsher monetary penalties on violators and to prosecute them in Town Court, instead of hoping for tough and speedy prosecution by the district attorney's office.

While many board members appeared to agree that improving the town law was a good one, changes never progressed beyond preliminary discussions.

"The ordinance is broken, and it needs to be fixed," Ketchum said.



Amherst tree war

William Huntress' ongoing battle with authorities over removal of trees on his property

2000: Acquest Development begins work to prepare 2220 and 2190 Wehrle Drive for office project.

July 2006: Workers hired by Acquest bulldoze hundreds of trees. Officials cite Acquest for violating the town's tree ordinance.

May 2007: EPA accuses Huntress of disrupting nine acres of wetland and violating the Clean Water Act, and orders him to restore the property.

Fall 2007 and fall 2008: Neighbors report many more trees are cut down.

June 2009: Acquest pleads guilty to cutting down two trees on the Wehrle Drive property and is fined $1,000.

July 2009: U.S. Justice Department files suit accusing Acquest of violating the Clean Water Act.

September 2009: Acquest files suit claiming Amherst has interfered with its rights to develop the property.

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