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MASTER PLAN NEARLY COMPLETE AS COMMENT DEADLINE NEARS

Days for public comment on a master plan for Erie County Parks are down to a precious few.

Consultants drawing up the $500,000 plan will accept public comment until Dec. 1 and expect to complete the plan by Dec. 31, when their contract runs out.

Larry Jasinski, Erie County parks commissioner, says the public seems to have pointed to reasonable and cost-effective goals for existing parks: repair and maintenance, rather than new construction; more "naturalization" with native tree and plant species; and marketing the parks on their natural features and family recreation, rather than team sports possibilities. This should be acceptable to a county government strapped for cash.

The planners want to string Wendt and Bennett beaches, Isle View and smaller lots and linear parcels together with trails to create "windows on the lake."

Mark Mistretta of Wendell-Duscherer says the real expense will be south of Buffalo, since the Buffalo-Tonawanda bike path already exists. But this, too, is low-cost and "doable" if other agencies and communities along the waterfront help out.

The plan is less clear over the undeveloped acres now called conservation parks. And, says Dean Gowen of Parsons Design, the lead planning agency, there's no question that it is those five parks that remain the thorns on the rose.

The final draft will reflect some ideas put forward by park friends groups, horse, bike and snowmobile riders, anglers and hikers, but the draft up for review waffles quite a bit -- which is good because it allows for flexibility. "A master plan is just paper unless you use it," Jasinski says. "You need a working document, and you need the ability to vary it for each circumstance." Erie County's five "conservation parks" -- Franklin Gulf, Boston Forest, Beeman Creek, 18-mile Creek and Hunter's Creek -- were posted as officially off-limits a year ago after complaints from the park's neighbors over illegal usage.

Jasinski said county lawyers have come up with a new posting that allows many uses in those extensive woodland acres. The signs should be up within the next few days. Prohibited are hunting, trapping, logging and all motorized vehicles. Violators may be fined, imprisoned or both, under county and state environmental laws.

In Boston Forest and a few other areas where written trail maintenance agreements exist with the Erie County Snowmobilers Association, those motor vehicles continue to be allowed, Jasinski said.

Hunter's Creek is again open to varying uses. The parking area at the base of the hill on Hunter's Creek Road is open. The upper lot -- really a pipeline access -- remains closed due to traffic concerns at that intersection.

Here are some of the touchstones that could apply to the conservation parks and Scoby Dam.

Use them for natural resources, such as forest management or wildlife enhancement, and for fisheries.

Put in trails of a type suitable for certain uses and skill levels.

Use low-key trail head and other signage and, when necessary, supply modest restroom facilities. Parking areas, too, should be low-key and informal.

Some ideas have met with reasoned opposition. For example, a scheme that calls for a 25-car graveled parking lot at each conservation park won't work at Boston Forest, where snowmobilers and horseback riders use nothing smaller than an SUV for towing their trailers.

Angling groups conferring with the planners about 18-Mile Creek in Hamburg are divided. Some fishermen say several two- or three-car turnouts could prevent traffic congestion when the steelhead are running; others say "if it ain't broke, don't fix it." Some creekside residents become apoplectic when they see non-neighbors toddling down to the creek they have enjoyed as a nearly private playground.

A proposed 150-foot buffer zone around all the parks has not been dropped, but will likely become "more flexible perimeter landscape buffers," Gowen said.

That 150-foot limit will just buy trouble, said Peter Tarnawskyj, who represents a horseback riding group. "Not allowing trails within 150 feet of the property line because of potential impacts on neighbors is setting a very dangerous precedent that could be used by trail opponents everywhere in the county," Tarnawskyj told the planners.

"Look at what happened in Orchard Park and Amherst when nature trails were proposed on public land bordering subdivisions. If I were fighting a trail behind my house and Erie County had this requirement for its parks based on impact on neighbors, I would certainly use that (to fight) any trail being built in my back yard."

Apparently his -- and other complaints -- were noted. Buffers, which can't be policed, will be on a park-by-park basis. And the cash-strapped county certainly has no funds to erect miles of fencing around its parks.

Still, landscape buffers are a good idea -- even around developed parks, Gowen believes.

"At Chestnut Ridge, for instance, picnic tables and shelters were built along park perimeters. Today, housing subdivisions mean those shelters are in people's back yards," he said.

Put that another way, suburban sprawl has put back yards up against public picnic areas.

One thing is sure: At some point, said one consultant, "someone of high stature in the community" must remind people that, while they own property adjacent to a park, they don't own the public lands. They may be able to influence future uses -- no motorized vehicles, for example -- but they cannot close off land owned in common by every resident of the county.

The latest draft is on the county's Web site at www.erie.gov. (Scroll down the lower right-hand side of the page and you'll see a link to the parks master plan.) You can still comment to any of the contacts listed before Dec. 1.

Then it is up to the interested public to see that a master plan is adopted and followed. Otherwise the "picnic parks" will continue to deteriorate and the "conservation parks" will not be used sensibly.

And one thing learned through this process is that the public wants to use the conservation parks bought with tax dollars 30 years ago.
e-mail: yvel@adelphia.net

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