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Landowners suing Schoharie County over work on creek

Sunday, January 5, 2014
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— Maurice Lawton estimates he lost 60 trees from his Middleburgh property after Tropical Storm Irene inundated the Little Schoharie Creek that runs through it.

But he’s not mad at Mother Nature because he believes contractors working for Schoharie County — not the raging floodwater — did the bulk of the damage to the creekside property.

Lawton, one of more than a dozen property owners unwilling to give approval for a $21 million creek restoration project, is entangled in a lawsuit against the county seeking unspecified damages.

The former Middleburgh school board member was knee-deep in school business following the 2011 disaster and didn’t make it down the steep slope until November.

“I didn’t recognize anything,” said Lawton, who said heavy machinery ripped out trees and turned several small channels of the creek into one large channel. There are two new roads leading to the site that Lawton doesn’t want.

He wants the county to compensate his family before he allows it any more access to the creek.

The county is seeking signatures from property owners along several creeks planned for restoration under a $21 million Emergency Watershed Protection program project of the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Last month, engineers said 17 of 80 landowners affected by the project had not granted permission to do the work.

The lawsuit, filed in early 2013, remains in early stages, according to the county’s attorney, James J. Burns of Albany.

Burns said the work was performed by contractors during the wake of flooding that devastated the Schoharie Valley.

Companies were commissioned to clear massive amounts of debris from waterways to prevent further damage in the event of more flooding. The workload in waterways was so great following the storms it led to dozens of temporary jobs aimed at cleaning up a 37-mile stretch of the Schoharie Creek where much of the debris wound up.

Lawton’s Gridley Road property extends down a 3,000 foot-long ravine to the Little Schoharie Creek, which travels to the Schoharie Creek.

He said he’s upset nobody asked him before work was done on his property.

“I had no idea they were even there,” he said, adding that one engineer he spoke with estimated the damage would cost about $300,000 to repair.

He thinks the work that was done after the disaster would make flooding worse downstream — it turned several smaller branches of the stream into one single, deep channel, he said.

Also, he said, there are no fish in the creek anymore.

Lawton said he supports the work that’s planned for the Little Schoharie Creek, which engineers reviewed with him. But he won’t sign a consent form allowing more work on the property until the matter is settled in court. The case, assigned to state Supreme Court Justice Eugene P. Devine, is still in the discover phase.

 
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