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Just because it hasn't happened in the past 380 million years is no guarantee the fossils in the Penn-Dixie Quarry won't get covered over by a parking lot some day.

That is why the Town of Hamburg and the Hamburg Natural History Society are involved in a project to preserve the 57-acre site near Big Tree and Bay View roads and turn it into an area with several uses.

But those uses do not include dirt-bike tracks and beer parties, and the first step will be securing the site and cleaning it up. Several burned-out cars and several dozen tires that litter the site may be pretty old, but they are not considered to be of paleontological significance.

Plans include a parking lot; a mile-long handicapped-accessible nature trail that will double as a cross-country ski trail; and cement pads and telescopes for observing the night sky. Visibility is good because the site is ringed by trees that block outside light, Natural History Society President Jerold C. Bastedo explained.

Part of the deal also is for affordable housing on the south and east sides of the property. Housing will help act as a buffer and was part of the town's arrangement to use $96,000 in federal community development block grant funds as part of the $242,500 purchase price.

"The new homes will help benefit the community as a whole," Town Councilman D. Mark Cavalcoli said.

The site has been known for decades as a valuable source of fossils and has drawn scientists and students from throughout the world. Most of the fossils are from coral, clams and various small shelled animals.

"I've taken people back here who weren't especially interested in fossils," Bastedo said. "But they think it's pretty neat to find something that's 380 million years old."

The fact it is easily accessible and relatively flat makes it all the more attractive. But as long as it was in private hands, there was always the danger of its being commercially developed.

That is why the town got involved about six years ago in an effort that has culminated in buying the site (the closing is due in a week or two). And now the town and society are moving ahead with plans to develop it.

And it will not be just for rock hounds and fossil lovers.

Cavalcoli and Bastedo outlined their goal of turning it into a multiuse educational and recreational facility.

Long-range plans call for a two-story building containing restrooms, classrooms and research facilities. Two ponds might be adapted to serve as sites for biology studies.

The town reached an agreement in February to purchase the property from Vincent Bonerb, Cavalcoli said.

Despite the fact that the site is a regional attraction, the town was unable to secure any other governmental funds and finally agreed to put up the money itself. But it was not easy convincing all Town Board members they should be investing in a fossil site rather than roads and sewers, Cavalcoli said.

"Everyone liked the idea. It was just the money," he said. "Maybe it sounds corny, but I believe you have to have a vision and to save something for future generations."

The Natural History Society was formed in 1993 with the goal of preserving the site.

Penn-Dixie apparently stopped mining the shale, which it used in cement, in the early 1960s.

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