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Canal tree plan meets growing resistance 

The New York State Canal Corporation has agreed to have a representative meet with elected officials from Pittsford, Perinton, and Fairport to discuss its plan to strip trees from several sections of the Erie Canal banks in those communities.

Pittsford Supervisor Bill Smith says the Canal Corp. agreed to the meeting late last week – and just days before a rally against the plan organized by a citizens group, Stop the Clear Cut. The agency will meet with Smith, Perinton Supervisor Mike Barker, and Fairport Mayor Fritz May.

The Canal Corp. and its new parent agency, the New York State Power Authority, are removing trees from 56 sites between the Village of Medina in Orleans County and the Village of Fairport. The agencies say the work is necessary to allow for proper inspection of the canal banks and also to ensure the banks' integrity.

The agencies argue that the embankments were designed to be bare and that tree roots can destabilize them. Roots can loosen soil as they grow, and water can seep in through the root channels, they say. The decision to remove the trees wasn't based on any immediate problem or threat, they say, but rather on dam engineers' practices as well as guidance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the US Army Corps of Engineers. The canal's embankments are, in many instances, treated as dams, since they are structures built to hold back water.

"The arguments they have advanced, I would characterize them as underwhelming," Smith says.

The critics – and there are a lot of them – see the project as unnecessary and a waste of money, at best. They point to relatively recent Army Corps of Engineers publications that say tree removal may not always be the best solution for ensuring dam embankment stability. The publications say that when roots are left behind to rot, natural processes can loosen soil and create pathways for water to seep in.

The officials and residents are also worried about the effects the tree removal may have on views from the canal trail and from homes. If the Canal Corp. strips the embankments bare, it will probably affect property values, Smith says.

Some critics are also concerned about losing shady areas along the canal trail, while others are concerned about the loss of bird habitat.

"Just in general, the emphasis on tourism, the attempt to get people to treat the canal as a tourist destination simply has not been considered in this approach that they've taken," says Jill Miller, a Brighton resident who frequently uses the canal trail near Bushell's Basin. Miller is one of the organizers for the Stop the Clear Cut rally.

Miller and other Stop the Clear Cut members also say the plan was poorly communicated to local government leaders and was developed without any public input. Residents and local government officials want the Canal Corp. and the Power Authority to halt the tree removal project and work with them to see if there might be a less drastic, less destructive solution.

Contractors have already cut down trees on some sections of the canal. In Medina, the crews cleared out several swaths, though they'll be back in the spring to remove the stumps and roots. But the work has seriously changed the views in some parts of the village, says Deputy Mayor Owen Toale.

"It is extreme," he says.

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