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COSTLY LAND PURCHASE WILL BE DISCUSSED AT SPECIAL MEETING

A special meeting to explain why the Niagara-Wheatfield Central School District is spending $571,875 for 45.7 acres of land next to Edward Town Middle School has been scheduled for 7 p.m. today.

School Superintendent Judith Howard Tuesday said she called the meeting at the request of School Board members who wanted to respond to allegations by Town of Wheatfield officials that the district could have purchased the land for a lot less.

On Monday, the Town Board voted to petition the state attorney general's office to look into the transaction.

The land was assessed for about $150,000 at the time of the purchase agreement in February and was valued by a private appraisal at nearly $190,000.

Town officials such as Supervisor Timothy E. Demler maintained that the district could have acquired the land through an eminent domain proceeding. Town Attorney Robert O'Toole said such a proceeding would have legal fees as low as $10,000.

"You have to realize that if we went through eminent domain it would be treated as a working farm that is very profitable," Howard said of the land on Saunders Settlement Road. She said in 1996, the district spent nearly $200,000 in legal fees to purchase land for the Errick Road Elementary School expansion. Litigation fees are not reimbursable by state aid.

In addition, the purchase price was high because the owners, David and Lee Milleville were aware of the district's intentions, it was noted.

Tonight's meeting in West Street Elementary School will follow the same question-and-answer format as in a Feb. 16 presentation.

"We want to emphasize that this was all handled legally by our attorneys. We held all the public hearings. The public voted on it. There was nothing illegal," Howard said.

The purchase was approved in a Nov. 17 voter referendum as part of a larger $38 million capital project. The land will be used for athletic fields, additional access roads and parking, and for future expansion and for an emergency exit for students from the Tuscarora land across Saunders Settlement Road. Howard said an emergency incident occurred in the late 1990s.

The superintendent said that after state reimbursement, the local share of the purchase is $150,000, which translates into $1 per year for every taxpayer for the next 15 years.

If a parcel at another non-adjacent location were purchased at $4,000 an acre, the local cost would be about $170,000 because it would not be eligible for aid, she added.

In addition, the recent settlement with the New York Power Authority gives the district $300,000 a year for school and community recreational use. The district would not be able to use this money without the land, she said.

Howard added that she has yet to receive a call from Demler or any other official from Wheatfield or surrounding towns concerning the purchase.

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