On the surface, a proposal for a waterfront park wouldn't seem controversial. But many Wheatfield residents, including the town supervisor, are saying "not in our backyard."
With slightly more than two miles of riverfront, the only possible location for a waterfront park is a 16-acre parcel between River Road and the Niagara River at the end of Williams Road.
"This is our last chance for any kind of waterfront development," said Councilman Larry Helwig, who, with with Councilman Art Palmer, is a main supporter of a park.
Last week, the Town Board passed Helwig's resolution to seek $500,000 in state funds toward the $1.4 million purchase price of the vacant land, which is owned by Calamar Enterprises of Wheatfield. A total of $1.5 million in grants will be sought for the project.
But Wheatfield Supervisor Timothy E. Demler said developing and maintaining the proposed waterfront park and boat launch would cost another $2 million.
The project would end up costing residential homeowners about $265 more a year in taxes, Demler said. That doesn't sit well with the three-term supervisor, who has cut taxes in Wheatfield six years in a row.
"I would love to have a boat launch and park, but not at any cost," Demler said. "It's not worth spending millions of dollars to benefit about 300 boaters who already have access to four boat launches in the area."
Three of the four are nearby boat launches and parks operated by the City of Niagara Falls, North Tonawanda and the Town of Tonawanda.
"What kind of money are we talking about just to maintain this boat launch after we pay $2 million to build it and buy the land?" asked Valerie A. Carr, a taxpayer. "How many residents are willing to pay higher taxes for something so few of us will use?
The suggestion of a tax increase has prompted a Sy Road resident to go door to door asking people to sign a petition opposing the plan. Michele Werley said she expects to get 1,000 signatures to take to the next Town Board meeting.
"We don't want our taxes being raised for something we'd proably never use," Werley said. "We already have several parks and boat docks. We don't need another one."
Palmer said he also opposes any tax increase and pledged not to pursue the proposal if no state funding becomes available.
But he agreed the development would bring an economic boost to the area and could help fill vacant stores in the mini plaza at River and Williams roads.
"What an economic boost it would be," Palmer said. "It could take 15 years to develop, but it would have immediate impact."
Residents also are wary of a 30-acre mound of grass about a quarter-mile from the proposed site. In the 1960s and 1970s, Hooker Chemicals & Plastics Corp. and the Olin Corp. used the 102nd Street landfill as a dumping ground. The Superfund site area was capped in 1974, and cleanup was completed in 1998.
"What happens if we have an environmental problem in the area," asked Deputy Supervisor Kenneth Retzlaff, who also opposes the park.
"Right now, the site is as safe as it's going to be," said Edmund P. Sullivan, coordinator of the Niagara County Brownfields Working Group. "But we've lost some precious waterfront property."
Demler said capital projects such as the new senior citizens community center and the installation of a sewage system throughout the town have been accomplished while cutting taxes through "creative financing." The town earns 6 percent interest on surplus money, while borrowing money through bonds at 4.5 percent to pay for the projects.
"This proposal has got to be addressed and nipped in the bud before it goes too far," said Douglas Werley, a retired ironworker Michele Werley's father-in-law.
"We don't need a boat dock when you can go a quarter mile down the road to launch a boat," he said.
Werley contended that Palmer's fishing tackle business near the proposed site would benefit from the development. But the councilman said the suggestion that he supports the proposal to benefit his tackle shop doesn't make sense.
"I sell $500 worth of worms a year," Palmer said. "Give me a break."
Palmer also runs a distribution center for mobile home products near the proposed development.
"If it becomes a mobile home park, then I would make money," Palmer said. "But I don't want to see a mobile home park there."
The purchase of the property is not a done deal despite the town's application for a grant. Town officials said last week that if the conditions aren't right, the town has ample opportunity to back out.
So far, the Town Board only has approved resolutions by Palmer and Helwig to get letters of support from Sen. George D. Maziarz, R-North Tonawanda, and Assemblyman David E. Seaman, R-Lockport.
Demler chided Helwig and Palmer for their involvement. He suggested the town negotiate with North Tonawanda to co-use a new boat launch nearby in Gratwick Park or continue to let Wheatfield boaters rely on "the three launches available now nearby."
The waterfront proposal sparked a long speech by Demler at the last Town Board meeting which drew comments from the audience and from other board members. Throughout his talk, Demler blamed Helwig and Palmer for asking grant writer Lucy Curley to go ahead with the request letters.
Some audience members compared the proposal to the town's deal for the former Niagara County dump on Witmer Road, which was purchased for $5,000 with the promise of a similar recreational development. As a result of that deal, the town has become one of several parties that must pay for cleaning up and monitoring that site.
Town Attorney Robert O'Toole said that despite the requests for state money and the agreement to purchase the land, the town always can back out.
"There are a number of contingencies in the proposal that must be met," O'Toole said. "It's not written in stone."
Curley noted that seeking support from appropriate legislators was a procedural matter in grant applications. She agreed that the town's hands are not tied.
"You can always turn down a grant," she said.