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Brant considers buying lakefront property

Woods and a beach on Lake Erie in southern Erie County, believed to be the largest uninterrupted stretch of waterfront from Pennsylvania to Niagara Falls, could become the newest park for Brant residents.

Three hundred sixty-five feet of sandy beach and about 10 acres of old growth forest are among the 55 acres of woodlands that the owner wants to keep from being developed.

Brant Town Board members are considering buying the parcel, which is tucked between Wide Beach and Lotus Bay, to be used only by town residents.

“We’d like to keep it a preserve,” Supervisor Leonard Pero said.

The property spans both sides of Old Lake Shore Road, and the town can buy it for $600,000 from the owner, retired psychologist Ellen Rusling of Rochester.

“She is very much into nature and wants to preserve it,” Pero said, adding there are eagles’ nests on the property. “To me, that’s a bargain, when you stop and think what beach front property costs.”

The land is part of the former Wilhelm estate, owned by Richard Wilhelm, who made millions of dollars operating a glue factory in Gowanda. Among those reported to have visited Wilhelm in Brant were Presidents William Howard Taft and Theodore Roosevelt.

Rusling’s father, Willard Genrich, the former chancellor of the state Board of Regents, spent summers on Lotus Bay. He used to deliver newspapers to Mrs. Wilhelm, and he kept in touch with her through the years. Parts of the estate, including the house, were sold off, and Genrich bought the property from Mrs. Wilhelm’s estate in 1967, according to Erie County records.

Genrich loved walking the property, and Rusling brought her children when they were young.

“The old woods are very rare. There are very few areas in Erie County where you will find them,” she said. “I think they’re very important to preserve. You certainly wouldn’t want them logged.”

Rusling inherited the land after her father died in 1999. She cleaned up the parts that had become an unofficial dump, and restored several turn-of-the-century cottages, which would not be part of the purchase.

There are 44 acres on the lake side of Old Lake Shore Road, and 11 acres on the other side of the road. Pero said the 11-acre portion could be developed into a campground, which could generate income to help support the preserve.

Plans for the west side of the road include building three pavilions that could be rented, two or three gazebos for meditation and relaxation and a classroom educational center for the town recreation program.

The Western New York Land Conservancy is playing a supportive role to the town. From a land conservation perspective, it’s an extremely valuable Western New York property, according to Nancy Smith, executive director of the land conservancy. Nature preserves can increase neighboring property values, quality of life, wildlife habitat, she said.

Some of the town’s 2,400 residents aren’t so sure. They have questioned whether the town can afford to buy the property or maintain it, or whether the town needs the land.

Pero, who admits he thinks it is a terrific deal, said the town can afford it. He points to the administration of the budget in the past five years, when the town bought an old school to use as the Town Hall, as well as a new snow plow, dump truck and two cars, while lowering the tax rate.

The Town Board will meet again at 7 p.m. Tuesday in Town Hall, to decide whether to go ahead with the purchase, and if so, whether to hold a referendum.