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Huntress lawsuit targets EPA

William L. Huntress, a controversial Amherst developer who was indicted last year by a grand jury for alleged environmental crimes, has gone on the offensive with a fiercely worded lawsuit against the U.S. government.

He also has asked for the indictment against him to be dismissed, claiming that a federal prosecutor presented false and misleading evidence to the grand jury.

Huntress, 55, recently filed a $65 million lawsuit, accusing the Environmental Protection Agency of conducting a "vindictive, spurious, retaliatory and overzealous prosecution" that led to the criminal charges against him.

So far, at least, government officials have declined to respond to his allegations.

In unusually colorful language for court papers, Huntress accuses government agents of using a criminal probe to punish him for his efforts to develop two Amherst properties, one off Wehrle Drive and another off Transit Road.

Huntress' lawyers compared federal agents to violent, marauding soldiers from ancient Rome in a 42-page complaint obtained by The Buffalo News.

"[EPA agents] have wasted millions of dollars of taxpayers' money and tens of thousands of hours by taking a harassment approach patterned after the Romans entering Mediterranean villages and crucifying a few men to intimidate the other villagers into submission," attorneys Bradley R. Cahoon and David R. Pfalzgraf Jr. claimed in the complaint.

Buffalo attorney Paul J. Cambria represents Huntress in the criminal case. He said the criminal case only involves actions taken by Huntress on the 97-acre Transit Road property, near Millersport Highway.

"I certainly feel that there was no reason for this case ever to go criminal, and that the property is exempt from governmental jurisdiction as a wetlands," Cambria said. "The EPA emerges in this case as the big daddy government agency that goes out and crushes landowners They are upset with Huntress because he refuses to roll over."

>'Disregarding the laws'

But in the federal government's view, Huntress is a law breaker.

While the U.S. attorney and the EPA both declined to comment on the merits of Huntress' new legal actions, federal officials accused him of numerous wrongdoings in the indictment made public last November.

U.S. Attorney William J. Hochul Jr. announced a seven-count indictment against Huntress and two of his development companies. The government accused Huntress of illegally building a gravel road, removing trees and dumping hundreds of truckloads of fill on the Transit Road property, which the government maintains is a wetlands.

Huntress was charged with criminal contempt of a court order barring such activities, making false statements to the government and lying to the EPA about what he was doing on his property.

Huntress illegally bulldozed parts of his land, cut down trees and filled in wetland areas, despite two previous court orders barring such actions, federal attorneys alleged.

In a news release after the indictment, Hochul said Huntress and his companies were accused of "disregarding the laws created to protect the environment and obstructing the investigation into this conduct."

"Wetlands play a critical role in maintaining a healthy environment," EPA investigator William V. Lometti said in announcing the indictment with Hochul. "Wetlands provide habitat for fish and wildlife, improve water quality and reduce flood damage. Today's indictment shows that those who allegedly fill in or destroy those essential natural resources will be prosecuted."

If a property is designated as a wetlands under environmental laws, it becomes extremely difficult and expensive for a landowner, such as Huntress, to develop it, Cambria said.

Huntress denies the criminal charges. According to his attorneys, the EPA went after him criminally despite knowing that neither of Huntress' properties meets the legal definition of wetlands.

Cambria alleged that, during grand jury proceedings, a federal prosecutor gave Buffalo grand jurors misleading information that a judge had determined that the Transit Road property is a wetlands and that there was "probable cause" to believe Huntress broke the law.

"In fact, no such final determination has been made to this day," Cambria said. "As far as I'm concerned, once the grand jury was told that, Huntress had no chance to avoid being indicted in this case."

The two undeveloped properties in question are 26 acres off Wehrle Drive near Bellingham Drive and 97 acres off Transit Road. Huntress wants to build an office park on the Wehrle property. His plans for the Transit Road property have not been made public.

In court papers, government attorneys stated that the Transit Road property is a wetlands, protected by federal and state environmental laws. But Cambria argues that, because the land has been used for farming for the past century, it cannot be designated as a wetlands.

In addition to his fight with the feds, Huntress has battled for years against Town of Amherst officials who accused him of illegally cutting down thousands of trees on the Wehrle Drive property.

Since 2006, he has twice been fined $1,000 for illegally taking down trees from his properties. During a highly publicized confrontation in 2006, Satish Mohan, then the town supervisor, stood in front of one of Huntress' bulldozers to prevent him from removing trees from the Wehrle property.

His supporters call Huntress an innovative, hardworking developer who isn't afraid to take on government powers. Critics -- including some people who live near the Wehrle property -- have portrayed him as a man who runs roughshod over environmental laws to get his way.

"I do not see him as someone who has been victimized by the government," said one neighbor who has battled for years with Huntress over his actions on the Wehrle property. "He's taken down thousands of trees, illegally. He has repeatedly broken the law, and he's done things after he's been specifically told by the government that he could not legally do them."

Because of the rancor of past disputes with Huntress, the neighbor spoke on the condition of anonymity.

According to Cahoon, government agencies have treated Huntress unfairly in the criminal probe, singling him out for criminal prosecution because they were upset about actions he filed against the government.

>'Good shot' at dismissal

At one point during the civil litigation between Huntress and the government, an EPA official described Huntress as a "mensch," and added sympathetically, "The government doesn't care about money or time; Mr. Huntress does."

"Mensch" is a Yiddish term defined as a "person of integrity."

At another point, Cahoon claims, a federal official tried to intimidate Huntress by telling him, "We have a lot of tools in our toolbox."

As part of the court challenge, Cambria is questioning the constitutionality of the U.S. Clean Water Act, which he alleges is "extremely vague."

He said he believes he has a good shot at getting the Huntress case dismissed.

Cahoon claims in his lawsuit that other people who owned lands near Huntress' lands were allowed to dredge, place fill, remove trees and conduct other activities on their property with much less government intervention than Huntress has faced.

Several efforts by The News to get comment from the government on the lawsuit were unsuccessful. "We don't comment on pending litigation," EPA spokeswoman Bonnie Bellow said Friday.

A spokeswoman for Hochul said Huntress' allegations will be disputed in court papers but not discussed publicly by his office at this time. She advised a reporter to call the Justice Department in Washington for a comment.

Wyn Hornbuckle, a Justice Department spokesman in Washington, had no immediate comment Friday but said the department may comment on Huntress' allegations in the future.