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My brother-in-arms will be sorely missed

My friend Bill Norton died in May. He was a quiet man, and if you met him, you would be forgiven for not immediately recognizing his inner strength. More than friends, we were brothers-in-arms in a fight to preserve our properties and rural lifestyles.

I remember that summer day when I visited him to talk about our mutual problem. We met at his father's home in Great Valley, an old farmhouse built around 1817 by his ancestors who came to the area to help build the current Route 98. They purchased a tract from the Holland Land Co., and settled on the land, where the Norton family would stay to this day.

He toured me through the home and property, pointing out various details and history along the way. Walking through the woods and fields, he showed me the 10-acre pond where his grandfather had built a small steamboat and a large camp lodge to entertain visitors. The "Big Camp" was a building of special meaning for him, built by his grandfather, and paneled on the inside with many varieties of local hardwoods.

Like my own property, the Norton homestead was destined to be dissected by the proposed 219 Expressway. As we walked, Bill explained the highway route and how the house would be cut off from the pond and cabins, and how the Department of Transportation would not recognize the full extent of wetlands that would be destroyed. He described the habitat that would be destroyed, where he had observed bears, hawks and other species that were attracted to the pond and its environs.

I drove away with a better understanding of Bill and his ardent feelings for his family's history, and the intellect and stubbornness that allowed him to stand up to the powerful bureaucracy pushing the project slowly along. Indeed, stubbornness was a necessary trait to stay engaged over the 15-year arc of the project, when there was so little hope of saving his property.

By denying Bill's requests for protection of his property, the DOT had energized an intractable adversary. He did not oppose the highway per se, but was adamant that the state comply with federal rules governing the protection of certain resources, in particular wetlands and historic properties. It was not a popular stance, and he realized that mere protest was ineffective; one had to understand the detailed regulations to effectively challenge the voluminous Environmental Impact Statement.

And challenge it he did. Studying the EIS, he submitted a series of comments pointing out factual and analytical errors in the documents. He found errors from the ridiculous (there is no bear habitat in Cattaraugus County) to the more subtle definition of wetlands, which he insisted were misidentified and undercounted.

In early 2008, Bill's position was vindicated. In the midst of the Springville landslide fiasco, the state got into a protracted dispute with environmental regulators over a permit to build the next section of highway. After months of wrangling, they admitted that the EIS understated wetland impacts by an eye-popping 400 percent. The project was suspended. I believe that without Bill's extensive and prolonged protest efforts, that never would have occurred.

I know they do not normally name highways after people like Bill, but in this instance I think they should; perhaps just that short stretch in front of the Norton homestead.