Earth Day in East Aurora will be enhanced this year by a sense of accomplishment. Today marks the grand opening of the Cazenovia Creek Nature Sanctuary, and Monday the Town of Aurora will celebrate the official kickoff of a $630,000 campaign to protect the 60-acre Mill Road Scenic Overlook.
Monday is an important day for the Mill Road campaign, but it is far from the beginning of the story. Led by Kathy Lasher and Nancy Smith of the Western New York Land Conservancy, more than 30 community members have spent four years preparing for this event. Chaired by Smith and Libby Weberg, deputy mayor of East Aurora, the town's Open Space Committee prepared the Aurora Open Space Plan, which was unanimously adopted by the Town Board. That plan set a long-term goal of doubling the open space in the town to 14 percent.
The plan lists not only the expected benefits of land conservation: habitat conservation, water quality protection, preservation of agricultural lands and providing a psychological sense of well-being; but also economic benefits: enhancement of property values, maintenance of taxes and support of local merchants by attracting out-of-town visitors. On the other hand, while new housing projects add more citizens to the tax base, the cost they add to town services more than offsets that income.
The Mill Road property will not be the first to be protected by the Open Space Committee. That honor goes to the 5.6-acre Cazenovia Creek Nature Sanctuary. That property became available when the home on it was condemned due to soil erosion and had to be demolished. Additional support for this project came from village officials, the former landowner, the Western New York Land Conservancy, a private donor and the Bank of Holland. A 12-member, village-appointed committee chaired by Mary Durlak has worked to create a trail system and to replace invasive plants with natives.
A few days ago, I joined Smith on a visit to the Mill Road property. On our way, we passed the Cazenovia Creek property. While it is sad to have anyone lose his home, that loss represents a clear gain for the village because this is very attractive creekside land.
We continued on to the Mill Road Scenic Overlook. It is located about two miles southwest of the village of East Aurora. We parked next to the home of the current owner and Smith introduced me to Clinton and Barbara Closs, whose family had owned this property for 180 years. They and the Sievenpiper family, who own another third of this land, are selling the property for preservation.
The land is mostly an extensive downward-sloping meadow, but it blends into a forest at its lower end. Those trees are a mix of maples, beech, hemlock and pines. Of course the hardwoods were bare when we visited, but photographs show them in glowing fall colors.
We had no sooner stepped out into the grassland when I heard a sound that excited me: the plaintive whistle of a meadowlark: see-wee, see-wee-you. When I was young, this song was heard from virtually every open field, but today it is far less common. Mowing of winter wheat in early summer destroys many of the nests of these and other field birds, and even fields left fallow have not helped much. They don't last long. Soon shrubs intervene and the transition to forest begins.
If this property can support a continuing population of these now uncommon birds, I will be most happy. Clearly it has other attractions as well.
Smith told me a number of personal stories about the overlook: A European woman who visits Hamburg each year always stops to enjoy the view. Another woman told friends that she visits the site when she has an important decision to make. A family takes its holiday photos here each year. There are wedding photos from the meadow, and bikers, walkers and runners find this a place that inspires them. The East Aurora cross-country team has run here for decades. And it is a special stop on the newly designated Southtowns' Scenic Byway.
The success of this project will mean that this attractive site will never be converted to a subdivision.