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Property owner in trouble with DEP

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Saturday, Aug. 20, 2011
 

Riding the success of his Internet technology company, Francois Bitz bought nearly 200 acres of old farmland in Marshall 15 years ago, not only to build a $1.5 million mansion but to allow horses, goats and other animals to roam free.

Now, the multimillionaire's work to set up three watering holes for his cattle could cost him dearly. Marshall Township engineer Robert Robinson on Friday said Bitz performed the work without the proper permits, destroying more than 2 acres of wetlands and damaging nearby streams. Bitz said he'll end up spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to make things right.

"I wake up every morning and say, 'It's green. Why are they complaining?'" said Bitz, 51, the founder of Fore Systems. "I'm questioning why I'm even living in Marshall Township."

The state Department of Environmental Protection issued a news release saying Bitz would pay $137,000 in fines and pay to fix the property, but quickly retracted it, saying a final consent order hadn't been signed.

Bitz's attorney, Jonathan Kamin, said he was negotiating final details. DEP spokeswoman Katie Gresh said she could not comment.

Bitz and his business partners sold Fore Systems in 1999. His Bitz Foundation has given hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Pittsburgh Opera and donated land for the Pittsburgh School for the Creative and Performing Arts, Downtown.

According to Robinson, Bitz excavated two acres of wetlands and impacted nearly 1,100 feet of an unnamed tributary of Big Sewickley Creek, which is classified as a trout-stocked fishery, without an erosion- or sediment-control plan. Bitz's property is near the RIDC Thorn Hill Industrial Park.

Robinson said Bitz didn't get permission from the township before he started excavation work with heavy equipment, and also installed pipes on the property. Robinson said the impact to the wetlands was "pretty substantial," but added that no wildlife was affected.

Robinson said Bitz was "less than cooperative" when the township first told him he couldn't complete the work without the proper permits but he cooperated when the DEP got involved last year.

Bitz said the work on the ponds is essentially complete, but it could cost him more than $250,000 to restore the wetlands and repair the tributaries, along with paying more than $100,000 in legal and consulting fees. He said the DEP isn't convinced that he needs any ponds and he won't go along with any agreement that orders the ponds to be removed.

Robinson said he believes the ponds can remain.

Bitz said he's being unfairly singled out, adding that he has created more wetlands on the property than existed when he bought it.

"If I was a poor farmer, they wouldn't have said anything to me," Bitz said.

Robinson said the township tries to treat everyone equally.

"We certainly want to make sure everyone is in compliance," he said.

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