The Common Council unanimously passed a bill Tuesday that its sponsor hopes will set the wheels in motion for relocating residents of the Hickory Woods subdivision in South Buffalo.
Council President James W. Pitts sponsored the resolution calling for development of an urban renewal plan in a neighborhood that has been the focus of health and environmental concerns. He described the Council's 13-0 vote as a "major step forward" in addressing residents' concerns while also making a long-term plan for the property.
But the Masiello administration, which is working on its own plan for Hickory Woods, noted that funding and other issues must still be resolved before any action can be taken. A spokesman for Mayor Anthony M. Masiello said the administration will release details within two weeks.
More than 75 Hickory Woods residents attended Tuesday's Council session. They gave lawmakers a standing ovation following the vote, waving small red flags -- symbols of the warnings that they claim the city had received about contamination in the subdivision.
Jennifer Blake of Abby Street, whose son has health problems, said: "I'm really happy that the Council has taken this step. But I'm very angry and hurt that the city has let things go this far. The conditions are killing people and are destroying an entire neighborhood."
Blake said her 5-year-old son is legally blind, started walking only several months ago and has yet to speak his first word.
"I'm afraid to have any more kids," said Blake, who added that she has initiated legal action.
Rick Ammerman, president of the Hickory Woods Homeowners' Association, told lawmakers that relocation is "the only way" to proceed. He claimed properties have plummeted in value to the point of becoming "worthless" and expressed concern that a pending state Health Department report might try to "explain away illnesses."
Last spring, federal environmental officials took soil samples from about 80 homes and vacant lots at Hickory Woods. The tests revealed the presence of lead and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, a common byproduct of coal, ash and oil.
In the late 1980s, the city unveiled plans for subsidized new housing for the first phase of the Hickory Woods subdivision. Critics have contended that the city never should have developed the project in a neighborhood contaminated with coke waste.
Pitts said his plan would allow the city to use its urban renewal powers to buy what he considers distressed properties. He plans to establish a committee that will include residents, city legal experts, Council members and representatives from the administration to develop a comprehensive plan.
"We need to address remuneration, relocation and remediation," said Pitts. "I think we can develop a plan within the next month and a half."
Vincent J. LoVallo, Masiello's chief of staff, said the administration has been working on its own plan to address the problems at Hickory Woods. He said details likely will be made public within one or two weeks. "Our plan may differ somewhat from Mr. Pitts' proposal, but it will most likely move in the same direction."
LoVallo's comments were viewed by some as the strongest indication to date that the mayor might ultimately go along with a buyout. The administration has stopped short of endorsing such a move, but it recently wrote federal housing officials asking for financial assistance if a buyout becomes necessary. Assistant Corporation Counsel Richard K. Stanton told the Council the city could receive an answer from federal officials within several days.
Pitts' plan could cover as many as 80 property owners and cost the city between $5 million and $10 million.
Council Member at Large Charley H. Fisher III urged city officials to move expeditiously on the plan, saying "analysis paralysis" should not be allowed to triumph over common sense.
"This Common Council is the court of last resort for the people," said Fisher. "The people in the city administration were not listening."
But Majority Leader Rosemarie LoTempio said she thinks both the Council and administration embrace the same goals when it comes to resolving the controversy. Lawmakers expressed confidence that the redevelopment plan will be implemented swiftly.
"I really hope that's the case," said Blake. "But nothing the city does moves swiftly."