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DOT HITS STONE WALL, LOSES AREA ROAD FIGHT

Stone is stronger than paper or red tape.

A two-year fight pitting a retired farm couple against the rulers of state roads over a historic stone wall in the Town of Portland ended in victory for the owners Friday.

The turn-of-the-century structure along Route 20 in Chautauqua County will not be torn down. Instead, it will continue as a colorful landmark delighting the traveling public each summer with its sash of bright red geraniums trimmed with white alyssum.

This time, bureaucracy ran into a wall of determination in the form of Howard and Laura Green.

"We just feel good that it is finally over," an elated Green said Friday, "and that we are going to be able to retain our wall. It's been a traumatic two years."

A compromise was finally worked out Friday between the Greens, owners of the 120-foot-long wall, and state Department of Transportation officials, who had branded the wall a highway "safety hazard" and ordered it removed.

DOT spokesman David Ernst confirmed that an agreement had been reached but pointed out that "this is a tentative settlement that still has to be put down on paper and signed by both parties."

Refusing to discuss any details until the settlement had been signed, Ernst did say that the DOT was "encouraged that the proposed agreement, while permitting the wall to remain, will improve the safety of the roadway significantly."

The settlement was worked out during an informal meeting in the Chautauqua County Courthouse in Mayville with State Supreme Court Justice Joseph Mattina mediating. DOT representatives agreed that if the Greens would move an end portion of the wall about another 12-18 inches back from the highway, the wall would not have to be dismantled.

The DOT agreed to share the expense of dismantling and rebuilding the section, said Green. The DOT also withdrew its demand that a small staircase at one end of the wall be blocked off with steel bars, Green said.

"Instead, the DOT agreed that we could use a wrought iron gate across the stairwell that will not destroy the beauty of the wall," he said.

It was two years ago next week -- July 1, 1988 -- that the DOT notified Green that the 8-foot wide wall, which is about 3-to-4-feet high, was on state land, was a safety hazard and would have to be removed by July 31.

Since the notice, the Greens launched a public support campaign that attracted statewide media notices, gathered more than 4,000 signatures on a petition to save the wall; went to court three times; lived through five postponed hearings; spent thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours researching records to prove that the wall was on their land and not on the state's right-of-way.

Determined to win, each spring, as they have for more than 40 springs before, the couple planted hundreds of geraniums in the giant flower box.

The tug-of-war over the wall was initiated when the DOT was doing redesign work in anticipation of resurfacing a stretch of Rte. 20. DOT's surveyors determined that the wall was not only on state land but was too close to the paved road.

At the time, Walter "Pete" Naegely, DOT assistant regional design engineer, said there was not enough shoulder room between the edge of the pavement and the wall "to allow a driver to safely stop his car if he should lose control."

Green countered that in the almost 50 years that he has lived in the home, no vehicle has ever struck the wall.

Naegely could not be reached for comment Friday.

But Green said:

"I shook hands with him and told him, 'Now we are at peace with each other and we can speak to each other and be friends.' "

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