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Controversial program cuts hundreds of trees along Erie Canal. Is Buffalo area next?

In a matter of days, hundreds of trees were cut down along the Erie Canal in Medina, Albion and Holley.

The Canal Corp. called it "canal vegetation management."

Residents in the towns had other descriptions of the clear-cutting.

"It looks like a bomb went off," said Mark Monacelli, who lives next door to the canal lift bridge in Holley.

Maple, cherry, willow and ash trees among others were cut down by Canal Corp. contractors along raised canal-owned embankments in Orleans and Monroe counties. Some of the trees had diameters of 1- to 2-feet wide.

The tree cuttings were the start of the Canal Corp.'s scheduled work at 56 spots covering 145 acres along Erie Canal embankments in Orleans and Monroe counties, according to the agency.

Since then, residents in three Rochester-area towns have sued the state Canal Corp. to prevent the tree cutting near their homes.

Could the tree cutting happen closer to Buffalo?

A stake in the ground at a site west of Medina where trees were clear-cut along an embankment of the Erie Canal. (T.J. Pignataro/Buffalo News)

"I'm not aware of any plans for the Canal Corp. to do that in Niagara County," said Dave Kinyon, chairman of the Lockport Locks Heritage District Corp.

A Canal Corp. report on vegetation management pointed out a stretch between Buffalo and Rochester with "numerous active seepage locations along our embankments."

But Erie County seems safe, for now, because its embankments are different than those in Orleans County and Monroe County.

"The project itself has only gone from Orleans to Monroe counties," said Steve Gosset, a spokesman for the New York Power Authority, which assumed ownership of the New York State Canal Corp. in 2017. "The embankment itself doesn't extend that far."

In Holley, what's left now are hundreds of stumps on an embankment that's been cleared of all of its trees for a couple hundred yards east of the Holley lift bridge.

The same can been seen to the west in Medina and Albion, and to the east in Brockport and Spencerport.

"It just looks like it was stripped bare," said Debbie Hall of Gates, who frequently walks along the canal paths there. "They didn't leave a single twig."

That's what prompted the lawsuits ahead of the scheduled cuttings this year in Brighton, Perinton and Pittsford.

"We were dumbfounded by the amount of damage," said Elizabeth R. Agte of Fairport.

'Still a shock'

Cutting down the trees was necessary to protect the integrity of embankments from tree-root intrusion, to improve the agency's maintenance capabilities and to prevent flooding, state officials said.

The Canal Corp. fears embankments will become compromised from growing tree roots. The raised earthen berms keep the canal water from low-lying areas on either side of it. Seepage could result in erosion, sinkholes or even catastrophic failure of the embankment.

It happened at Bushnell's Basin near Rochester in 1974. The community was flooded when an embankment let loose.

A nearly foot-wide diameter stump from a cherry tree remains along with hundreds of other stumps on the northern embankment of the Erie Canal just west of Albion. (T.J. Pignataro/Buffalo News)

More recently, Albion witnessed the power of the canal's water in 2012. A sinkhole near the Albion Correctional Facility sucked a portion of the embankment into the canal just west of the village.

The Canal Corp. said it had identified "numerous active seepage locations" along embankments between Rochester and Buffalo and actively monitors them.

Critics of the state plans said, however, the Canal Corp. failed to mention that the earlier failures were due to construction activities and culvert damage, not from tree root intrusions.

In Albion, the embankment work came as an unpleasant surprise to many.

"You could kind of understand why they're doing it," said Albion Mayor Eileen Banker, referencing the 2012 sinkhole. "It was still a shock."

Banker added: "I don't think we knew what to expect until they already started doing it."

Monacelli and others in Holley said they got little warning from the state before work began and little idea of what to expect.

"What they said was they were going to be taking larger trees that were causing root damage to the canal bank itself," said Kara Sugar-DeFelice, whose log cabin home and rustic property abuts the canal. “We didn’t know they were going to actually devastate the whole line. They weren’t selective at all, obviously.”

Trees that grew there for a half-century or longer just disappeared.

"It happened quick. In two days, this was demolished. Trees gone, chopped and logged up, and the next day, out of here," Sugar-DeFelice said.

"The pieces of equipment they had were incredible," Sugar-DeFelice added. "These things just grabbed hold of the tree from way up at the top, cut it, clawed it into this big gigundous chipper, chipped it. That blew the chips all over the embankment. And, the part of the tree that was good, they logged, and put it up at the top and the next day carried it off and sold it to some logging company."

Going to court

Agte of Fairport administers the "Stop the Canal Clear Cut" public group on Facebook. She helped spearhead an information campaign in the affected Rochester-area towns.

More trees were cleared along an embankment just west of Butts Road in Albion. (T.J. Pignataro/Buffalo News)

Town boards in Brighton, Perinton and Pittsford joined together and sued the state Canal Corp. to block the tree cutting. It's on hold for now.

A state judge found in the towns' favor and determined that the Canal Corp. didn't follow state environmental laws when it began the tree cutting.

It's too late for residents like the DeFelices.

Their 30-year-old log cabin in the woods — along with the homes of two neighbors, including Holley's Mayor Brian Sorochty, as well as other residents in Medina, Albion and Brockport — are now in full view of walkers and bikers on the nearby Andrew Cuomo Canalway Trail, as well as passing boats, kayakers and motorists.

“It was a complete barrier. You couldn’t see anything back here," Sugar-DeFelice said. “I could be naked on my back deck, sunbathing, and nobody could see me. Now, I can’t do that anymore.”

Besides privacy, the clear-cut also brought other problems.

The former tree stand was a substantial wind break. And because it's not there any more, residents' homes were colder last winter, costing them more in heating bills.

What's more, trees on residents' properties were knocked down by high winds because they were exposed.

Last week, the DeFelices hired a private tree contractor to plant new conifer trees along their property line to restore that buffer. They're hopeful the state will compensate them for their losses and to clean the mess left behind.

"They can't re-create what we had," Sugar-DeFelice said.

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