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TOWN TO LOWER ASSESSMENTS ON VACANT LAND

Clarence, one of Erie County's growth communities, Wednesday night passed a law that rewards land conservation with lower taxes, but its benefactors were largely silent.

In a town where a property revaluation this year stirred anger among owners of large parcels, just two people spoke at a Clarence Town Board hearing on a law that will reduce vacant land assessments by up to 90 percent for those who qualify.

The Town Board unanimously approved the measure, first introduced in 1993. For owners of parcels of 10 acres or more willing to surrender development rights to the town, it offers a 25 percent assessment reduction in the first year, increasing by 5 percent a year to a maximum of 90 percent after 25 years.

Land owners agreeing to a perpetual easement -- one that runs with the land forever -- get the 90 percent reduction from the first year on.

Vacant land values spiraled this year when the town updated assessments from 1987 to 1997 values. People who own large tracts that are not farmed and thus do not receive agricultural exemptions were among the hardest hit, officials acknowledged. Councilman John F. Love, who championed the new law partly because of revaluation's impact, said it provides a cushion for those who no longer farm their land to fall back on when their agricultural exemptions expire.

Which is exactly why Arlene Hibschweiler, a West Seneca lawyer, said she showed up to speak in support of the law at Wednesday's hearing. Her family owns about 60 acres in northern Clarence but is worried about what will happen to the taxes when the existing agricultural exemption expires.

The only other speaker was Peter Wolfe, a member of the Clarence Conservation Council, which has been pushing for the law on and off since 1993. "It is time to move forward with this," Wolfe said.

Ms. Hibschweiler said about 40 of her family's 60 acres are leased to others who farm it. A scenic wooded area, which she said neighbors enjoy, constitutes the remainder of the 60 acres.

"We love the land very much . . . and we like people to enjoy it, too," she said. "It will be a very sad day for us if we have to sell" because the family can no longer afford the taxes.

Ms. Hibschweiler noted that while the county's population dropped by 4.6 percent between 1980 and 1990, Clarence's rose more than 10 percent. This, she said, suggests people moved to Clarence for its small-town, rural environment.

"In a sense, Clarence is a victim of its own success," she said.

But growth means dwindling green space, and the town's new conservation law could "help stem the tide," she told the board.

In other business, Supervisor Paul R. McCarthy announced the receipt of state grants totaling more than $440,000 through the office of Sen. Mary Lou Rath, R-Williamsville. Clarence Highway Superintendent Ronald L. Witnauer said the grants are for sidewalks, highway equipment, paving materials and bridge repairs on Kraus and Old Goodrich roads.

However, McCarthy said a state grant for a town pathway project was denied. Out of 67 project requests statewide, 16 were funded, McCarthy said, adding the town will re-apply next year.

The board also appointed the town's first paralegal, said it will protest an Aug. 1 rate increase by Adelphia Cable, and will submit to the county a request for a traffic study of the troublesome Strickler-Roll roads intersection.

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