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A creek moved, Woodlawn Beach changed and now residents are mad

Longtime Woodlawn residents like Mike Pinter of Second Street remember the days you could drive a car out on the wide, sandy beach at the foot of Lake View Avenue in Hamburg.

You can't do that today. The only way to get to Lake Erie at that point is to cross about 10 feet of dark water that is several feet deep. That's because Blasdell and Rush creeks, once several hundred feet apart, have merged to form a single mouth emptying into the lake.

Residents blame New York State and the development of Woodlawn Beach State Park, which opened to the public in 1996. After several years of sounding the alarm, they are getting a sympathetic ear and support from the Town of Hamburg.

Residents say debris scooped up from the beach and dumped next to Rush Creek caused the creek to veer from the lake to a course more parallel to Woodlawn Avenue. The creeks were about 400 yards from each other when they emptied into the lake in 1995. Within 12 years, they joined to form a single channel.

"My concern is that creek used to go straight out to the lake," said Pinter, who has lived on Second Street for 66 years. He's worried about flooding from the realigned creeks.

The 86-year-old was one of more than two dozen residents who met with town officials and a representative of the state Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation on Tuesday in the Woodlawn Beach State Park Pavilion. Town Supervisor James M. Shaw said he sent three letters to state Department of Environmental Conservation officials inviting them to the meeting, and was told they were directed not to attend.

"Do you know how many meetings we've had?" said Paul Engler of Fourth Street. "Just put that stupid creek back the way it was."

After the meeting, Pinter wanted to go to the easement area to see where the creek had gone. He settled for walking, with his cane, to the end of the boardwalk over the dunes at the park. His wife and a couple neighbors joined him. He was amazed when he saw a grove of trees where Rush Creek had once entered the lake.

Every property owner from First through Seventh streets has an easement granting access to the beach, and many more have used that section to get to the lake over the years. The easement runs from First Street to Seventh Street, which used to be the area between the two creeks, Gloria Engler said.

"Our easements say we should go straight to the beach," she said. "We have a swamp that does not move. We smell it every year. It's getting wider."

At left, the Woodlawn Beach area in 1995. Rush Creek is to the top of the photo, Blasdell Creek is toward the bottom. Homeowners have easements allowing them access to the beach, roughly between the two creeks shown here. At right. by 2007, Blasdell and Rush creeks have joined into a single channel. (Google Earth photos)

Debbie Mallery of Second Street said she has home movies from the 1950s and 1960s, showing a sandy beach. She checked out the area a few days ago.

"I didn't stay long, because it smelled so bad," she said.

The Englers contend what has happened to the creek seems to be what was spelled out in "Alternative 2" in the final master plan for Woodlawn Beach State Park. The alternative, called the Harborfront Beach Development plan prepared for the Western New York Economic Development Corp. in 1990, proposed realigning the creeks and creating a "settling pond" to improve water quality at the swimming beach. State Parks said in the master plan that alternative was unacceptable because of the significant impacts on the environment.

"The fingerprints of man are all over that creek," said Highway Superintendent Ted Casey, adding he would like to take a bulldozer and move the creek back.

Former Regional Parks Director Mark Thomas told The Buffalo News two years ago that the state began storing organic beach material on one section of the beach so it could decompose naturally. Hamburg continued the practice when it took over operating the beach in 2011, and several years later it was discovered Rush Creek had started to redirect itself and was eroding the debris pile that had been permitted by the state DEC. The pile was removed, with much of it going to a section on the northern end of the park. Moving it within the state park does not require a solid waste management permit, state and local officials said.

Shaw, the town supervisor who is also an attorney, said the residents may have a legal case against the state.

"Does their dumping or their behavior impact your ability to enjoy your easement?" he said.

He said he would set up a meeting with neighborhood representatives and environmental and real estate attorneys recommended by the Erie County Bar Association who might have some ideas for the neighborhood. He said he also will check to see if the University at Buffalo Law School's Environmental Advocacy Clinic can provide assistance.

Residents believe with the natural flow of the water, if the creeks are separated and opened up they will flow naturally to the lake, cleansing the creeks, which have become dark and stagnant where they join.

"We have to have some expert opinion," Shaw said.

If the town can secure an expert opinion that the dumping caused the creek to turn, Hamburg can ask for a state grant that would fund a study on the best and most cost-effective method of separating the merged creeks, he said. If the study finds moving them is feasible, he said the town would ask its state legislators to "carry the ball for us."

Shaw also told residents they should form an association and elect officers, so there will be several representatives to serve as contacts with officials.

He said getting legal and environmental opinions could be done over the fall and winter, so "we're ready to make our move in spring of 2019."

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