In a town where open space is rapidly disappearing, the oldest trees left in Amherst may be the next natural resource to go.
Plans were unveiled last week to build four custom-designed homes on a forested lot on Klein Road, between Chapel Woods and Knollwood Lane. But the Amherst Planning Board tabled the matter -- a routine site plan approval -- when it learned that trees up to 300 years old were growing on the seven-acre property.
Eight wildflowers on the state's endangered plant list might be growing there as well, said Bruce Kershner, an environmental scientist and author.
"These are the oldest living things in Amherst," he said. "You can't get much more significant than that. This is an irreplaceable treasure."
While there might be a stray tree somewhere in Amherst that is older, John R. Whitney of the U.S. Department of Agriculture said he did not know of an older grove of trees in Amherst.
"The Western New York Land Conservancy talked with the (Schubert) family about getting a conservation easement, but it never went anywhere," he said.
The stately black cherries, beeches and sugar maple trees prompted Donato Curcio to buy the land from the Schubert family for $350,000 and build his dream home there. A native of Italy, Curcio is the founder and president of United Silicone, a Lancaster manufacturer employing 200 people.
"If the town's intention was to preserve it, they should have bought it, and then they could have preserved the 300-year-old trees," Curcio said. "I bought it for the purpose of building on it."
The four homes would be custom-built and at least 5,000 square feet. The plans also call for a tennis court and a pond.
Curcio points out that the zoning would allow him to build up to 20 homes -- which would virtually wipe out the forest. But he never intended to get rich off the project, he said, so he is proposing only four homes to preserve about 60 percent of the forest.
But Kershner said the plans could be modified to save even more.
"I'm not here to block the owner's ability to develop the site, but I want to save as many trees as possible," Kershner told the board.
He suggested that Curcio remove the pond and the tennis court -- which are not in the old-growth area -- and put one of the four homes there instead.
Many neighbors at the meeting applauded the idea because they do not want the lights from the tennis court shining into their back yards, and they fear that the pond will attract mosquitoes.
Without the pond and the tennis court, only 30 percent of the old trees would have to be cut down, Kershner said.
The Planning Board has the power to modify plans to minimize environmental impact, said Gary B. Black, assistant planning director. But first the board needs to see a survey of the trees on the property and hear from the state Department of Environmental Conservation.
Although there may be endangered flowers and plants on the property, they do not receive the same protection as endangered animals, said Mark Kandel, senior wildlife biologist with the DEC.
The law says that no one but the property owner can disturb them.
"It doesn't carry the same weight as endangered wildlife," Kandel said. "I don't know if there are any protected plants on the property, but that wouldn't preclude development. But it should be a red flag to the town when looking at the environmental impact."