What will be decided in the town of Tonawanda, probably soon after the next election, is what will happen to its last remaining forest.
Town Supervisor, Ron Moline, (R) wants more development.
He says Tonawanda has ample green, with numerous parks, replete with many swings, and ball fields. “We have more parks than any neighboring town,” he said.
Moline is pleased that town officials sought out the owners of the last forest to see if they could persuade them to facilitate a new development, and add, hopefully, to the tax base. The forest, now tax exempt, is largely unknown. A 132 acre tract, it lies behind Kenny field, on Brighton and Colvin, behind Elmlawn cemetery - which owns the land.
Moline and others of the seven member, currently, all-Republican, town board seem to favor bulldozing trees, and substituting pavement, mortar, and, perhaps, vinyl - not for the love of pavement, or vinyl, but for taxes. A new development will bring hundreds of thousands of new tax dollars to an almost fully developed town.
The company that seeks the land, Ciminelli Development, one of the largest developers in Western New York is, incidentally, one the larger donors to the Erie County Republican party. The town board has discussed helping Ciminelli with tax incentives, granting special permits, and clearing legal hurdles to get the project, reportedly, offices, light industry, and a destination point for trucks to deliver goods, approved, and built expeditiously.
Elmlawn, a not for profit cemetery, has owned the property for years, and likely will lease the land to Ciminelli, who will indeed pay hefty taxes on the land. For Elmlawn, this is a once in a lifetime deal - a chance at a windfall.
Of course, there are those who volunteer to use the land, animals and plants, species who have lived in Tonawanda for, literally, millions of years -- a cornucopia of northern woodland species -once spread over all Tonawanda - now reduced, in some instances, to this one last forest: The white tailed deer, red, and grey fox, muskrat, skunk, possum, raccoon, wood chuck, brown bats, leopard frogs, painted turtles, salamanders, wild turkey, great blue heron, coopers hawk, chimney swift, gold crowned kinglet, magnolia warbler, rose breasted rose beak, great horned owl, and, also, there, before even these, are mature willow, elm, poplar, sycamore, red, and silver maple, red, and white oak, black and green ash, buckthorn, hawthorn, and the wild geranium, mandrake, gill - on- the- ground, red clover, swamp rose, yarrow, snow thistle, evening primrose, Jerusalem artichoke, and wild grape. All of these have seniority, some are irreplaceable, but none have a voice in the matter.
The surrounding neighbors, of course, have a voice: they want the forest preserved. They have begun to petition, and organize groups to oppose development. The forest serves as a buffer between them and the noisy, exhaust-ridden 290 thruway that looms on the other side of the forest. Who wants more congestion, sprawl, fumes, and a plethora of 18 wheelers driving though their neighborhood in place of green vistas?
But neighbors aren’t volunteering to pay taxes on the forest.
Others are also speaking out, like local activist, Frank Anunziato, who favors a study to see if the forest can be saved.
“There are plenty of ball parks, sure - but no place where one can walk in the woods, or spread a blanket and have a picnic,” he said.
Meanwhile, Republicans favor enterprise. Giving people fiscal motives-- collecting taxes for industry and ambition, promoting building, and new construction, getting people good jobs. Ciminelli will provide all these.
It’s the Democrats who talk about sprawl, and environment, and curbing development.
Moline’s opponent for supervisor, for instance, Democrat Susan Lichtblau, wants the forest preserved and, if elected, plans to find a way to do it.
“I am very much in favor of keeping the forest like it is.”she said. “There is already a path there, and many people remember playing there as a kid. It would be an excellent idea if the town had a forest.”
But Republicans see a chance for more tax dollars. Ciminelli could take his business elsewhere. Tonawanda’s tax gain may be, for instance, Cheektowaga’s loss.
But Cheektowaga has Steiglmier park, 1000 acres of forest land, in a similarly developed town. People who live in Tonawanda can go to Cheektowaga to walk in the woods, and Tonawanda can reap the taxes. Amherst has a 1200 acres, Clarence’s 400 acres; most towns have at least one forest preserve.
Ultimately, Tonawanda will either buy its last forest, and provide a place to see Tonawanda, before developers, before settlers came -- back to the primeval, old growth, beech/maple, temperate forest. Or provide for the advent of a grand Ciminelli project, of sparkling asphalt, brick, and, perhaps, steel construction, and collect new tax dollars for better services in a town that was once all forest, but soon may have none.
If townspeople want a forest, they are going to have to offer Elmlawn as much as Ciminelli, and pay for it. And decide to do it, soon.
The spotted salamander, the wild turkey, or the great horned owl have lived in Tonawanda a long time. Maybe there time is at hand.