Erie County [NY] is considering using eminent domain to seize control of a rare forest that sprang hundreds of years ago from Lake Erie's sandy shore.
The forest, with its hemlock, black cherry and oak trees, is the oldest forest in the state, experts say, but even more exceptional is its location on a sand dune.
"To find an old-growth hemlock forest on sand, well there's only one other example in the world," said Bruce Kershner of the Buffalo Audubon Society.
Kershner is among those fighting the property owner's plans to build a home on the dune, located in the town of Evans, about 15 miles west of Buffalo.
Jeffrey White has said he would build in a place where there are no trees, but authorities say even that would damage the dune and the ancient trees it supports.
Erie County's commissioner of environment and planning has asked county lawmakers for permission to pursue the land through eminent domain, saying months of negotiations to buy the property from White have been fruitless.
Commissioner Laurence Rubin said he suggested a price of $750,000 for the 18-acre parcel, more than $200,000 over what White paid the former owner's estate in 2003. The land, known as Pine Lodge, was a private camp during the first half of the last century. About five acres are considered environmentally sensitive.
"He turned that down," said Rubin, who said White named a $2 million price tag.
White, who did not immediately return a phone message Thursday, said earlier that he dropped his initial plans to subdivide and build several houses on the land after the county raised concerns about the old-growth hardwoods, deciding instead to build only one home, for his family.
"It was the right thing to do," he told The Buffalo News in January.
But an environmental consultant's report sought by the county strongly advises against any construction on the dune, warning it would increase the likelihood of water and wind erosion.
White disagrees, countering that the trees have already survived centuries of battering by lake winds and waves.
Kershner, an old-growth forest expert, estimated the age of one fallen hemlock, a kind of evergreen, at 586 years, based on a count of its rings. Other trees, still standing, are even older, he said.
"We were floored," said Kershner, author of the recently published "Sierra Club Guide to Ancient Forests of the Northeast" and several other environmental books.
"When something is this rare and unique globally unique one doesn't go messing around with it without saying I don't care about it's significance," he said. "This is an example of our native heritage."
The only other old-growth dune hemlocks are on Lake Michigan's eastern coastline, in Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. Hemlocks are seldom found in sand because of their need for constant moisture.
"When you lose this, it's irretrievable," Kershner said.
The proposal to pursue eminent domain is before the Legislature's Economic Development Committee. In the meantime, the Evans Town Board will decide later this month whether to require White to perform an environmental impact study before beginning construction on the land.
Environmentalists spoke in favor of the requirement at a board meeting on Wednesday. White attended but did not comment.
If a court approves acquisition of the land by eminent domain, an independent appraiser would set the price to be paid to White.