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Fate of Williamsville dam debated as Ellicott Creek channel dries up

Fate of Williamsville dam debated as Ellicott Creek channel dries up

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Ellicott Creek Dam Issue

Williamsville officials decided not to operate the Ellicott Creek dam this spring. They insist it's a safety issue and it makes more sense to perform an engineering study first, before reaching any conclusion on the future of the aging dam.

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Williamsville's decision not to operate the Ellicott Creek dam this spring has left some property owners in the village high and dry.

And this dispute sending waves through the village won't be resolved anytime soon.

Village officials insist it's a safety issue and it makes more sense to perform an engineering study first, before reaching any conclusion on the future of the aging dam.

They've resisted offers from Amherst and Erie County officials to pay for emergency repairs to allow its use this year.

"Our board agreed putting a Band-Aid on this was not the right thing to do," Mayor Deb Rogers said in an interview.

This leaves the owners of a group of homes and restaurants that back up to this section of Ellicott Creek with views of a rapidly drying creek bed and fears of foul odors and swarming insects as the summer arrives and what little water is left stagnates.

"It's just the unsightliness of not having water on waterfront property, which I built my restaurant on," said David Schutte, owner of Britesmith Brewing, a restaurant and taproom that opened in 2020.

Crews in the 1930s dammed Ellicott Creek, near Island Park, to prevent damaging flooding downstream in the village.

The dam stretches across the creek from the northeast tip of Island Park to the mainland at the rear of a shopping plaza. Operation requires village Public Works to stand on a narrow gangway and manually lower or raise five heavy gates that slide along steel tracks.

When the gates are lowered, Ellicott Creek, which flows from south to north here, backs up, filling a channel that runs around the western side of Island Park before it meets the main creek on the north side of the dam and continues under the Main Street bridge and over Glen Falls.

Rogers and other Williamsville officials say the dam's structural concrete and the metal gate tracks have deteriorated to the point where it's not safe for village workers to lower the gates.

A recently completed village waterfront plan concluded, in part, "the dam needs significant rehabilitation or replacement."

That's why, Rogers said, the Village Board opted not to put the dam into operation this spring, a decision the village announced in March.

"In the meantime, the village will seek a study to determine the best course of action – whether the solution is repairing, removing and/or replacing the dam with a new structure," Rogers said then.

Britesmith Brewery patio looks out over Ellicott Creek

The view from the patio of Britesmith Brewing, 5611 Main St., Williamsville. 

Several homes on South Cayuga Road, as well as a municipal parking lot, back up to the channel that relies on the dam to keep water flowing through it. But the properties most directly affected by the village's dam decision are Britesmith and the Irishman Pub and Eatery.

Those restaurants have patio sections that back up to the creek channel and their operators say the creekfront views were key reasons why they opened up where they did and are important draws for their customers during the outdoor dining season.

Now, creek water has made it partway through this western channel, but the water flow stops by the time the channel reaches the Irishman, leaving a view largely of exposed creek bed, stones and dried algae.

"Obviously, our guests are very disappointed that they don't have the lovely view that they normally would have," said Maria MacPeek, general manager of the Irishman, who also said the creek channel is a draw for ducks, beavers and other wildlife.

MacPeek and Schutte, who owns Britesmith as well as the Creekview restaurant on the side of the creek where the dam isn't a factor, both said the village should have forewarned businesses this decision was coming.

"I really wish they could have started this process a little bit sooner, for sure," Schutte said.

Village Board members say safety concerns far outweigh the aesthetics. At their April 25 board meeting, members confirmed they want to perform a study before performing any dam work.

Prior to the vote, Village Attorney Chip Grieco advised it's impossible to say which of the various competing interests makes the most compelling argument but agreed with the need to pursue a long-term solution.

"So, unfortunately, from both a legal and political/public relations standpoint, the village is – forgive the pun – stuck in a 'damned if it does, damned if it doesn’t' scenario," he wrote.

Officials say their decision not to put the dam into use has some benefits, noting there's less chance of flooding upstream, at properties in Cheektowaga.

Rogers said she discussed with Amherst Supervisor Brian Kulpa the possibility of town assistance.

Kulpa said he was able to find $41,500 in town coffers to cover the cost of emergency repairs, performed by town workers, to put the dam into use.

Kulpa, a former Williamsville mayor, said the property owners along the channel generate far more than $41,000 annually in tax revenue and he believes there's a value in keeping water flowing through the channel and, if only to preserve the option, out to the historic water mill now owned by Howard and Tara Cadmus.

"I believe that the village has a moral and legal responsibility to maintain the dam. If they are unable to fulfill those responsibilities, the Town of Amherst should step in because of the historical, financial and practical importance of the dam," Howard Cadmus, who also owns Sweet Jenny's, said in an April 20 letter to the Town Board.

The Irishman and BriteSmith restaurant and brewery left high and dry

The Irishman Pub and Eatery, left, and Britesmith Brewing are located at the north end of Island Park on the mainland with creek on right.

But Kulpa said he can't force village officials to accept the town's help.

"It's their dam," he said. "The village can do what it wants."

Amherst's offer of assistance, and a larger proposed contribution of $250,000 from Erie County, stirred up considerable debate at Monday's Village Board meeting.

Rogers and Keaton DePriest, the village's community development director, expressed frustration at what they considered the out-of-the-blue offer of help from County Legislator Jeanne Vinal, D-Amherst. DePriest said he repeatedly sought additional details from Vinal, but she did not respond.

Rogers sparred with Trustees Eileen Torre and Christine Hunt over the possible funding and the sincerity of the offer, with Torre and Hunt urging the mayor to reach out to Vinal directly.

Vinal, for her part, told The Buffalo News she wasn't intentionally blowing off DePriest but was recovering from a bad bout of Covid-19.

She said she had lined up as much as $250,000 for the dam, but on condition the money would flow through the town, which would use its own expertise and resources to restore the dam.

Vinal said a dam study would not be eligible for this funding given how long such an analysis would take to complete.

"I don't want the money sitting in limbo, so it's being reallocated," she said.

The News spoke separately with Rogers and Vinal on Wednesday afternoon before the women finally connected by phone.

In the end, Vinal proposes to apply most of the county money toward upgraded athletic fields at Amherst's West Royal Park, with additional aid for work at Island Park and Glen Park in the village, a plan Rogers said she supports.

The village will apply for a grant to pay for a study of what to do with the dam. Given this study will take a least six months to conduct, with an unknown period of construction to follow, nothing will happen with the dam before 2023.

"We want to see water back there again," Rogers said. "We want to see it become an island again."

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