A developer who last week defied a U.S. order to stop digging up trees on federally protected land in North Tonawanda has put the work on hold.
Meanwhile, the Western New York Land Conservancy wants to buy the remaining privately owned parcels on the Klydel Wetlands and permanently protect all 70 acres.
Herman Probst, who owns an 18-acre parcel on the wetlands, apparently defied an order last week by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to stop digging up land and cutting down 180-year-old cottonwoods and red maples. The corps posted a sign on his property that said, "The United States of America hereby orders you to stop work."
But the next day, the sign was gone, and Probst continued to allow a contractor to use heavy machinery to remove the trees.
When the Corps of Engineers put the sign back up and demanded a written explanation from Probst about his intentions for the site, the developer backed off, according to Paul Leuchner, chief of the corps' regulatory branch in Buffalo.
Probst said he was just "harvesting" the trees and refused to say if he was planning to develop the site.
"The Army Corps has no jurisdiction over me cutting trees on my own property," he said.
The corps has jurisdiction over the Klydel Wetlands, located just north of North Tonawanda Senior High School on Meadow Drive, and regulates what people can do on them, said Joe Kassler, a biologist in the enforcement section. But there is no federal agency or act that totally protects wetlands, he said.
The Western New York Land Conservancy wants to purchase all the privately owned parcels on the Klydel Wetlands to prevent any further development.
The conservancy has so far received preliminary agreements from half of the 10 property owners, said John R. Whitney, co-chairman of the conservancy's conservation committee. The first purchase contract is expected to be signed in the next two weeks, he said. The organization hopes to have half of the Klydel Wetlands under permanent protection in the next two years, Whitney said.
Some of the owners said they will sell their properties at their assessed value, while others are prepared to sell for less and write off the balance on their tax returns as a charitable donation, Whitney said.
One 17-acre parcel, for example, is appraised at $107,000, but the owners would sell it for $33,000, with a $74,000 tax write- off.
Probst bought his 18-acre parcel in 1996, knowing it to be part of the protected wetlands, he said. The property has an assessed value of $33,000, according to city records. Probst said if the land were developed, it would be worth $800,000, but he would be willing to sell it for half of that. He said no one from the conservancy has approached him about the possibility of selling the land.
About 100 trees, many of them 180 years old and indigenous to the wetlands, were cut down and removed by Probst's workers, said Steve Slivan, a director of Citizens for a Green North Tonawanda. Slivan, who lives nearby, said he saw the contractors haul away two truckloads of trees before being stopped.
"It's a travesty," said Tony Wagner, president of the Buffalo Audubon Society. "That kind of older-growth woods are so uncommon. They used to cover all of Western New York, and now there are just a few pockets left."
The Corps of Engineers regulates wetlands under the federal Clean Water Act and can restrict certain projects if they significantly affect the protected area.
"We have to determine the cumulative impact on a wetlands area, and Klydel has taken quite a few hits," said Kassler of the enforcement section.
Probst has the support of commercial real estate agent James K. McGinnis, the son of former North Tonawanda Mayor James M. McGinnis.
"Herman is a well-respected developer and businessman in the area and has done a lot to help the communities of North Tonawanda and Wheatfield," said McGinnis, who used to be in partnership with Probst.
Almost 60 percent of the original wetlands in Western New York have been destroyed, according to Land Conservancy records.
Titles to the purchased properties in the Klydel Wetlands will be transferred to the Buffalo Audubon Society, with the Land Conservancy controlling the easement rights, allowing such things as nature trails, Whitney said. The only buildings that would be allowed would be warming huts or limited hiking facilities, he said.
The North Tonawanda School Board already has nature trails on land it owns in the wetlands.
"The damage to the wetlands has been relatively minor so far," Leuchner said. "But we want to know what he (Probst) plans to do with the property."