Cycling through history

Cyclists move through the Port Byron Old Erie Canal Heritage Park in 2018. A Cayuga County Legislature committee Wednesday approved taking lead status on a project to rewater a portion of the canal after the town of Mentz and village of Port Byron pulled out of a state grant for the project.

SENNETT — A Cayuga County Legislature committee Wednesday moved forward a resolution that would see the county take lead status on a project to rewater part of the Erie Canal after the town of Mentz and village of Port Byron dropped out of the project.

In December 2017, Port Byron, as the lead agency on behalf of Mentz and the town of Brutus, received a $418,300 state planning grant for an Erie Canal Rewatering and Trail Connections Project that would help plan and design a project to rewater part of the canal from Port Byron to Brutus as a recreational attraction.

Last May, Port Byron pulled out of the project — with Mayor Ron Wilson at the time citing concerns with potential flooding issues and cost — and Mentz did the same this February.

With only Brutus left participating, the state indicated the grant would be forfeited, Brutus Town Supervisor Jim Hotaling told The Citizen previously, prompting a request to the county to assume lead agency status and save the project.

The resolution requesting the county's participation passed the Legislature's Planning and Economic Development Committee Wednesday, but several legislators expressed concern over approving it on the full Legislature floor.

While the Mentz town board gave no explanation when opting out of the project after an executive session at its last meeting, a letter to The Citizen from Board Member Mark Emerson said the town found the relevant portion of the canal was owned by the New York State Canal Corp, not the town, and the board did not wish to spend money on property it does not own.

Legislator Ben Vitale, D-Montezuma, whose district includes Mentz and Port Byron, said he was supporting the resolution in committee in order to move it forward, but said he wouldn't ultimately vote for it without support from the two municipalities.

"As a legislator, I won't put up county money when the town and village won't put up a dime of their own money," Vitale said.

Per the resolution, the town of Brutus would be responsible the entire 25% local match for the flood study portion of the grant — $9,475. If the flood study indicate the project is feasible, the town would contribute $73,737.50 for the next phase, and $64,262 would come from the county over the next three or so years, with the county receiving $17,800 reimbursement from the grant for administration costs.

Hotaling, who attended the meeting, said he agreed completely with Vitale, but was concerned if they didn't act fast enough they would lose the grant, leaving little else in terms of economic development possibilities for Brutus.

Hotaling, as well as Sharon Tilla, who wrote the grant application, said the flood study portion of the grant would also address the concerns expressed by Port Byron, as well as the approximately 14 residences in Brutus at risk for flooding.

"We're certainly not going to build something and cause damage to our neighbors and our residents," Hotaling said.

Committee Chair Chris Petrus, R-Brutus, said his home is one of those that often floods, so he was well aware of what addressing that would mean for constituents, along with the possibility of attracting tourism.

"If we can mitigate the flooding while facilitating economic development, again it's a win-win," Petrus said.

Vitale reiterated his concern about approving the resolution at the full Legislature, but was optimistic a solution could be found.

"At that point in time, I'm not asking Brutus to do any legwork, I'm just saying the county is going to have to work out something with the town and village, and I think we'll be able to when the time comes," Vitale said.

The resolution now proceeds to the Ways and Means Committee for approval before moving to the full Legislature.

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Staff writer Ryan Franklin can be reached at (315) 282-2252 or ryan.franklin@lee.net. Follow him on Twitter @RyanNYFranklin