About 800 people packed the Niagara County Farm and Home Bureau Center Tuesday afternoon and evening to offer solid opposition to state proposals for changes in how freshwater wetlands are mapped and classified.
Wetlands fluctuate in size and shape, and many residents are concerned that new maps showing larger wetlands on their property will limit how they may use or sell the land.
Speakers said the price of land would skyrocket, young families entering the home-buying market would be closed out and municipalities would be hampered by red tape in performing such routine duties as ditch cleaning.
Also, there is concern that jobs, especially in the construction industry, would be lost if the regulations curbed real estate development.
Assemblyman Matthew J. Murphy, D-Lockport, asked the Department of Environmental Conservation to "withdraw" from the hearing because it was attempting to usurp the authority of the State Legislature, which has already defeated the very provisions the DEC is trying to create.
Assemblyman Thomas M. Reynolds, R-Springville, said in a loud voice, "This hearing is not about an environmental balance of nature (but) about a bureaucracy that has taken upon itself to regulate what we did not legislate." Lawmakers backed away from such policies, he said, because of "constitutional questions raised by the state's taking of private property."
Daniel Symoniak, executive vice president of the Greater Buffalo Association of Realtors, received the loudest applause when he struck a raw nerve.
"If you're going to control somebody's land, you damn well better pay them for the privilege," he told the DEC panel.
"Who will pay farmers for their land, and who will pay the taxes on this land?" asked Wales Supervisor Howard D. Donnelly.
The audience booed a lone speaker who favored the regulations Tuesday night.
"An incredible 54 percent of the wetlands that existed in Colonial times have vanished forever," said Paul T. Schnell of Lyndonville, director of the Institute for Environmental Learning. He blamed it on municipalities' "mania to pursue the elusive panacea of increasing their tax base." In Amherst alone, he said, half of the wetlands have been lost to development.
The proposed changes would:
Require a developer who uses wetlands to identify other wetlands before construction starts so that "no net loss" would occur.
Add soil type and hydrology to determining factors. Now, certain vegetation is the sole determinant.
Change boundary delineation procedures, such as enlarging the wetlands area on a map if it has grown more than 500 feet beyond its original edge.
Clarence Realtor John L. Mosher said the DEC cannot be trusted to compute the size of wetlands. He said the same agent who examined a piece of property and found that it contained approximately 12 acres of wetlands returned five months later and set it at 22 acres.
Joseph D. Latona, Clarence town engineer, said the proposals would wreak territorial havoc in Clarence. He said 75 percent of the 35,000 acres in the town would fall under the new classification, which would result in a decrease of $300 million in assessed valuation. He said the town could stand to lose $9 million.
The department's wetlands program manager, Patricia Riexinger, said people were overreacting to the proposal and doubted that 75 percent of Clarence would fit the new regulations. She said no property will be considered wetlands unless it is both at least 12.4 acres and includes some of more than 2,000 types of designated vegetation, a much larger total than the present 50.
Some of the most common wetlands vegetations found locally are cattails, red maple trees and skunk cabbage.
DEC spokesman Kenneth Roblee said that less than 5 percent of Erie County and about 5 percent of Niagara County are wetlands under the present definition.
Residents have until Jan. 18 to file written statements with the DEC. The panel will then make a recommendation to Commissioner Thomas C. Jorling.