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Great Lakes Article:

Conservationists close to deal for new Penn. state park
The Associated Press

ERIE, Pa. - Conservationists may be close to securing the last tract of undeveloped and unprotected Lake Erie shoreline in Pennsylvania with the goal of getting the first state park designation in decades.

The land in Girard and Springfield townships has been owned by utility companies that had hoped to build an electric power plant. The plant never materialized, but plans for the plant shielded the 530-acre "Soho" site from further development.

Larry Schweiger, president of the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy which is leading negotiations, said a deal may be reached with Reliant Energy before year's end.

"This site holds a stand of old growth forests with trees that have largely been there since civilization first came to the region and it is very unique," Schweiger said. "This is a site that is very ecologically and archeologically significant."

Along with several endangered plant species, Schweiger said the area was populated by the Erie tribe and evidence of them still exists.

If the conservancy is able to acquire the land, it would transfer the property to the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources for use as a state park, possibly within 18 months, Schweiger said.

The transfer could occur sooner, almost immediately, if financing is completed, department spokeswoman Gretchen Leslie said.

Negotiations with Reliant are ongoing and terms of the deal were not available.

As late as last week, questions about whether a state park is the best use for the property were being raised.

The head of the leading development agency in Erie County sent a letter to Conservation and Natural Resources Secretary Michael DiBerardinis, asking that the loss of property for industrial use be taken into consideration.

Jacob Rouch asked that the acquisition be put on hold for further public discussion.

A number of people involved in the acquisition were taken aback by Rouch's stance and said public hearings regarding the site were held as early as 1998.

"There has been a dramatic change in the economic development scene since 1998," Rouch said. "I appreciate where their environmental concerns come from, but I'm paid to look out for Erie County's economic development interests."

Rouch took part in a conference call Friday with Conservation and Natural Resources Deputy Secretary Richard Sprenkle and said he is satisfied with the process in acquiring the land, but said issues remain.

There is little chance, however, that talks on the acquisition would be delayed, said Leslie, the department spokeswoman.

"Given the overwhelming support for the project and the seller's desire to conclude the deal by the end of the month, we see no reason to postpone this project," she said. "This is no ordinary property."

The site is unique because it has 90-foot bluffs overlooking Lake Erie, wetlands, dunes, mature forests and property adjacent to the mouth of Elk Creek, one of the best shallow steelhead fishing waters in the country, Leslie said.

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