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Rare sparrow halts housing development Presence blocks building of $6 million in homes

The Henslow's sparrow prefers to stay hidden.

But the threatened species has been found in Lancaster, and its presence has stopped a developer from moving forward with its plan for a major housing development.

Described by birders as "an uncommon and famously inconspicuous bird," the small, brownish, black-streaked sparrows are considered by the state Department of Environmental Conservation to be threatened. But by the time the birds were discovered in 2000 on open grasslands just south of William Street near Bowen Road, the land already had been approved for development.

Homes now stand on uncontested parts of the property, but preservationists are blocking a new wave of construction of at least 25 homes with an estimated worth of $6 million.

"As long as the site serves as a habitat for these protected birds, disturbance is prohibited," DEC spokeswoman Lori O'Connell said.

Seven years after their discovery, the Henslow's sparrows remain, making it virtually impossible for the property owner to build on approximately 123 acres that the DEC considers the songbirds' domain.

The Summerfield Farms-Fairway Hills development was conceived in the late 1990s and expanded over time to include the potential for more than 450 single-family homes. Designed as one of the town's largest single-family home projects, it has been plagued with other environmental issues after the sparrows surfaced.

"I've been doing this for 24 years, and this is the first project where I've ever had a protected species have any impact on the project at all," said William Tuyn, a senior project manager for Greenman-Pedersen in Buffalo.

Since the discovery of the birds, a DEC survey has identified another threatened species, the northern harrier hawk, and two other "species of special concern," both sparrow species.

In addition, both the DEC and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency have presented concerns about what they described as plans to disturb expanding state and federal wetlands on the property.

But while wetlands issues are increasingly common with new developments, animal habitat issues are not.

Marrano Marc/Equity, the region's largest home builder, is a partner in Fairway Hills Development, which owns the property and wants to develop it. Company representatives have been talking with state lawmakers and DEC officials to address hurdles associated with the project.

"We're working out our issues directly with the DEC," said Victor Martucci, Marrano's vice president for land development. "We're trying to deal with them in good faith."

Martucci declined to discuss the nature of his company's Albany discussions.

Correspondence between Marrano and the DEC makes it clear the company had hoped to begin construction late last year but halted plans after the birds turned up.

The first four phases of the development have been completed since 2004. Marrano is developing 45 lots in the fifth phase.

It's the sixth phase of development that affects the Henslow's sparrows. The sparrows prefer a specialized habitat of flat grasslands, according to bird guides. Though they migrate south in the winter, the DEC stated these sparrows exhibit "nesting site fidelity" -- returning to the same location each spring.

The developer disagrees with the DEC's fidelity claim but would nevertheless give up immediate plans to build 25 homes in the habitat area, lawyer Craig Slater, representing Marrano, said in a response letter.

He also said the developer has come up with an alternative that would avoid mapped wetland areas and "passively encourage Henslow's sparrow relocation."

In exchange, Marrano wants the DEC to promise it won't expand wetland boundaries on the property in the future.

Marrano representatives have expressed frustration over the many unanticipated barriers associated with the development.

In the 1990s, environmental reviews turned up no protected animal species on the land. That position was reaffirmed in 2002. Existing wetlands issues had also been addressed. The town gave the development a green light, and all parties, including the DEC, approved sewer permits for the project.

But as this once-farmed property reverted to its natural state over time, much of it transformed into a creature-welcoming habitat of grasslands and wetlands, protected by state and federal law.

In 2000, an astute local bird-watcher and member of the Buffalo Ornithological Society discovered the Henslow's sparrows nesting on the property and later alerted the DEC to their presence, O'Connell said.

The state also expanded wetlands boundaries on the property in 2004, further hobbling development plans. Based on 2006 conditions, the DEC is now proposing an amendment that would designate 400 acres north and south of William Street as wetlands.

Slater described such an amendment as "fatal to achieving our development goals."

O'Connell stated that a neglected 50-year EPA building moratorium, in place since 1981, also affects this development and should be addressed.

e-mail: stan@buffnews.com

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