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General Motors' $500 million expansion in the Town of Tonawanda is starting to take shape, at least on paper.

Aracadis Giffels, a Michigan-based architectural firm hired by GM, has filed conceptual site plans with the town depicting the 600,000-square-foot project's layout.

GM's construction of the $500 million expansion is expected to begin in late March or early April. The automaker plans to have the project wrapped up in late 2002 or in early 2003, in time to make new engines for the 2004 model year.

In addition to the expanded production space, the project will create a parking lot containing 541 spaces and a wastewater treatment facility. GM previously bought 12 acres of neighboring land for $2.2 million to create room for the expansion.

Michael Hazen, the town's supervising building inspector, called the site plan a good starting point for the approvals that the project will require. "Now they know what direction they have to go," he said.

The project will need a variance from the town's zoning board of appeals for loading docks that will be located near residential property, Hazen said. Plans call for those docks to be lightly used; the trucks will mainly use another set of docks on a different side of the building, farther from the homes.

Town officials will also review options, such as planting trees or putting up a fence, to create a buffer between the expanded plant and the homes.

The wastewater treatment facility at the site will actually be owned and operated by another company, Michigan-based DTE, but serve only the GM plant. The Erie County Industrial Development Agency will finance the construction of the facility.

GM opted to turn over the wastewater operation to a company that specializes in that line of work, and expects to save some money by doing so, said Dan Greene, a GM spokesman.

The project will also add an access road for trucks connecting the GM complex to Kenmore Avenue. The ECIDA is handling that project with funds from a state grant, as part of an incentive package used to lure the expansion to Western New York. The county plans to make improvements to Kenmore Avenue.

Hazen said the architect has made some changes to the site plan based on comments from residents who live near the project site. "They did listen to some of the concerns we passed on," he said.

Erie County is considering giving residents a high-tech way to get updates on the project. Wayne Scibor, senior civil engineer with the county's Department of Public Works and Division of Highways, said the county is considering creating a Web site, accessible through its existing site, that would provide the progress reports.

Scibor said he'd like to give residents a central source of information about the expansion and work on Kenmore Avenue and the new access road since there's so much interest in the project.

Scibor said he'll meet with other officials this week to see if it's feasible.

"If this works, it could be something the county does for all our projects," he said.

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