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Smith investigates ways to develop Lockport wetlands

LOCKPORT – Marc R. Smith, the former Town of Lockport supervisor now in charge of the town’s economic development efforts, is floating a new suggestion for ways to legally develop wetlands.

In order to take advantage of a federal program called the Wetlands Mitigation Bank, the town will have to create a new wetland of its own.

Then a developer who has his eye on building something on a wetland elsewhere could “buy” some of the town’s wetlands for $60,000 an acre, a standard price set by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The developer wouldn’t actually receive title to those wetlands, but he would receive credits allowing him to develop on the site he really wants.

Smith told the town industrial development agency board Feb. 11 that he’s researching whether the notion would be feasible, and is consulting with the Army Corps about suitable locations.

In order for the idea to work, the town would need to acquire some land and turn it into a wetland if it doesn’t already fall into that category. Eventually, it might become another town park or nature area.

“Our desire is to have something that our residents could take advantage of that’s just a farm field that’s lying fallow,” Smith said.

The town’s industrial park off Upper Mountain and Junction roads has about 20 acres still available for sale, not counting the 91 acres the town acquired last year from General Motors in an eminent domain proceeding. Some of that unsold space is categorized as wetlands, Smith said.

Lockport had a wetlands bank previously – a 41-acre site on Raymond Road – but it’s listed on the Army Corps website as sold out. There are three active wetland sites in New York, the nearest being a 19-acre bank south of Rochester, and one other application is pending.

A developer who wants to build on a wetland has three choices, Smith said.

“You can buy your way out with the Army Corps, mitigate on site or use these credits,” he said.

However, buying the credits at $60,000 an acre can be a tough way to solve a development problem. Smith said a developer has to purchase four acres of credits for every acre of wetlands he wants to build upon. “It’s very punitive,” he said.

Once they are made available, wetland credits can be bought and sold on the open market.

According to a fact sheet posted at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency website, wetlands mitigation banks have been allowed since 1983, but at first only state agencies, such as transportation departments planning new highways, could take advantage of them. The concept was expanded to private-sector projects in 1993.