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Canal trees lead to village unrest

by Margaret Stewart - Copy Editor
Tue, Dec 4th 2018 11:00 am

In the Village of Brockport, across a lift bridge, at the end of a hidden private drive along the North side of the Erie Canal resides Doug Kucmerowski, a former research scientist and engineer for Kodak. For 22 years, Kucmerowski has lived along the canal, hidden behind a wall of lush green trees and sloping down the small embankment built up along the edge of his property. It is this embankment and many more like it, that have recently been critically disrupted through the Greater Rochester area.

According to Kucmerowski, “a third of the Erie Canal is made of rivers and channels, another third of locks and other cement structures and about 122 miles of the canal is made of raised embankment dams.” Brockport consists of about four miles of those dams.

When the Erie Canal Corporation, previously owned by the New York State Thruway Authority and now owned by the New York State Power Authority, assessed the safety of the network in March 2017, specifically in embankment dams, they concluded the trees on the embankment dams, along the canal, pose a serious safety issue with the potential for loss of life. This upset and shocked many people, according to Brockport Village Mayor Margaret Blackman.

“There was a public meeting about the clear-cutting of trees held at The College at Brockport,” Blackman said. “[Due to communication issues from the ECC] few people attended, thinking that it was a college isolated issue.”

Many have learned, through their own education or through the Stop the Clear Cut (STCC) organization, based on the East-side of Rochester, that tree roots are integral when it comes to stabilizing ground structure. 

This is true in most cases but not when there is water on the other side of the embankment. The fact that the sides of the canal are embankment dams rather than levees or ditches, means that the rules are different. 

“There’s really only one, simple rule,” Kucmerowski says. “In order to be cleared by Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and meet its standards, all embankment dams must have a vegetation free zone. That zone is from the toe, where the embankment meets flat ground, upwards 12 feet over the waterway like a bubble.”

As the canal was man-made with the best supplies of 1918, there are some irregularities in the way the canal was structured. In 2018, some of the first improvements in nearly 100 years were made to a portion of the canal that flows through Fairport, NY. There, they installed steel plates that measured 40 feet tall and 20 feet wide in order to remedy some of the more sever leaks that have sprung in this historic waterway.

Since the beginning of the safety investigation, the ECC has located approximately “300 areas that are issues that, for one reason or another, fall out of compliance. 20 percent of what they’re fighting are leaks.” One of the known 61 leaks along the canal is located in Kucmerowski’s backyard, creating a part-time pond that appears in October and leaves in June.

The clear-cutting has already moved from Middleport, through Brockport and has currently taken a brief break in Spencerport. While many Brockport villagers are concerned about their property values decreasing, Kucmerowski and ECC co-founder Michael Kaswell worry about there being no canal at all. 

“Talk about a property value decrease,” Kucmerowski quiped. 

Many of the properties find their value in being considered “waterfront” as they are located right on the canal. While the removal of trees removes any privacy these residents have become accustomed to over the last 80 years, the potential danger of the trees with their overhanging limbs is a much more serious issue. 

“In July 2018, within an hour before a group of bikers was to pass through the bike trail in Fairport, a 4,800 lbs. branch fell and hit the pathway,” Kucmerowski said. 

Luckily, none of the bikers were hit and the limb was cleaned up but the potential for danger was made clear: the trees are too close to the canal and its recreational activities.

Mayor Blackman says that a follow-up public meeting will be held in early January where the ECC will again bring up results of the clear cutting of the trees along the canal and what will be used to replace them such as grasses and wildflowers.

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Taken by Vincent Croce:
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