Environmentalists Get No Respect


(This column was first published in the March 3, 2003 issue of The Buffalo News.)


Like Rodney Dangerfield, environmentalists "get no respect."


To consider an example, turn the calendar back to the 1980s.


During those years Peggy Christensen wrote a column titled "Focal Points" for a suburban newspaper. Her column served as a beacon warning of the many problems being caused by overdevelopment in Amherst. Her writing drew upon the authority of such people as university geographer Charles Ebert, environmentalists Lester Milbrath and Bruce Kershner, and Buffalo News reporters Dick Dawson, Mike Vogel, Lonnie Hudkin and Peter Simon.


Here are a few of her warnings:


      "Builders like to develop wetlands because the land is cheaper than solid ground. This misuse causes many problems. Soil stability is poor and buildings sometimes are severely damaged as they settle, resulting in cracked walls, broken pipes, etc."


      "Politicians who claim development is not allowed on wetlands either are misinformed or are misleading the public. Steve Doleski, local permit administrator states; 'The idea that the Department of Environmental Conservation never grants a permit for use of wetlands is untrue,' adding that all but five percent of the cases 'yield agreements.'"


      "The Great Baehre Swamp has already been reduced from 1,200 acres to 584," a loss of almost a square mile of wetland. The still further threatened swamp "stores excess water from one-fourth of Amherst. By trapping and slowly releasing storm water these areas greatly reduce the severity of floods."


      She called attention to a U. S. Commerce Department report that showed most of Amherst with "a slope of less than one foot per mile," creating a serious flooding problem and to problems "compounded by 'experts' who solve localized flooding by running more and more drainage ditches and pipes to the creek."


      Just days before a February 1985 flood, she wrote: "Arguing over minor details will not make our flood problems go away. When the next major flood hits, hopefully residents will find out the facts firsthand. Then perhaps, they will insist that their board take meaningful action."


      She condemned the unlimited development supported by a town board that overrode even the few permit refusals of the zoning board and urged town officials to heed fact-finding reports that cautioned against overdevelopment.


And here the responses:


Amherst Town Supervisor Jack Sharpe led the campaign, referring in one diatribe to "the continuous distortions and misstatements by Peggy Christensen" and adding, "Facts are facts and all the misstatements that have been appearing in the press lately from Mrs. Christensen and others cannot change them." In others he spoke of her "so many misstatements of fact," of her "untruths and incorrect information," adding such encouragements as: "Residents should also understand that because an area is in a flood plain, does not mean their house is going to be flooded."


Amherst Republican Committee Chair Ralph Cessario referred to her writing as "political claptrap,...demagoguery and half truths" and university professor Lawrence Southwick chimed in as well.


To her accusers' specific points Christensen provided detailed factual responses, but the tirade continued.


What has ensued? My wife and I are among those Amherst residents whose homes were flooded in 1985 when the water not only filled our basement but also poured into our first floor. Now we are beset with floor, wall and ceiling cracks due to the unstable soil drying out. Our current problems are, however, far from the worst in the area. Some Amherst residents have structural damage whose repairs will generate expenses in six figures.


Peggy Christensen, truly a modern Cassandra, was right. She remains one of my heroines.


And the Amherst Town Board is now creating still another committee.-- Gerry Rising