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Amherst puts limits on big box growth

Amherst, of all places, is finding the slow-growth religion.

Spurred on by a controversial proposal to build a Wal-Mart on Millersport Highway, the Town Board last week voted, 5-2, to draft a law that would ban the construction or "reconstruction" of stores bigger than 50,000 square feet. The only exceptions would be along the town's already congested retail corridors along Niagara Falls Boulevard and Transit Road.

It was a most uncharacteristic move by officials in a town that has long courted growth and usually was the first stop for the national retailers whose huge stores have turned Amherst into the big box capital of the Buffalo Niagara region.

But the vote to restrict big stores, along with a move last month to block plans for an Aldi's supermarket on Transit Road, are signs that Amherst is taking in the welcome mat that it long has kept out for retail developers.

"Things have definitely changed," says Daniel J. Ward, a Town Board member whose previous efforts to limit big stores never even managed to get a second from fellow board members.

"People don't want this to turn into a commercial circus," Ward says. "They don't want all this sprawl."

Fellow Town Board member William A. O'Loughlin Jr. also senses that the mood toward development is changing. But he cautions against reading too much into last week's vote.

"It only changes the attitude toward development of big box developments in specific areas," he says. "We're looking to keep our thriving retail sector in what already is a thriving retail area along Transit Road and Niagara Falls Boulevard." At the same time, supporters of the new restrictions want to keep big stores from dotting less developed thoroughfares, like the portion of Millersport Highway north of the Lockport Expressway that Wal-Mart had targeted.

Even Jeffrey Palumbo, the lawyer who represents the owner of the proposed Wal-Mart site, Cimato Development Co., says this isn't just about the world's largest retailer. "There's no question that the majority of the board has taken a no-growth, or anti-development stance, and that Wal-Mart just happened to be the first one on the tee," he says.

Ward and O'Loughlin both say the defeats of incumbent Supervisor Susan J. Grelick and pro-development Councilwoman Jane S. Woodward caused a sea change in the Town Board's collective attitude toward development.

The limits on big box developments puts Amherst on the same page as less development-friendly officials in the Town of Aurora, which in 2004 capped the maximum size of any new retail or commercial buildings at 55,000 square feet.

"Where Aurora is saying 'We don't want it,' Amherst is saying 'We want it, but only in certain locations,' " O'Loughlin says.

Either way, Palumbo says Amherst is making a mistake. "This is really a poorly designed attempt by the Town Board to stop development," he says.

"Do they really want to prevent Tops or Wegmans from developing anywhere but Niagara Falls Boulevard and Transit Road?" asks Palumbo. If the ban stays in place, it will push big retail projects to other towns and end up costing Amherst jobs, he says.

Pro-development forces won't go down without a fight. Palumbo expects the ban will be challenged in court, while Amherst business people and pro-development residents are forming a group called the "Jobs Coalition" that plans to start stating its case at Town Board meetings, he says.

"We have to be very careful," warns O'Loughlin, who says town officials have to walk a fine line to control growth without "tampering with the mental ecosystem of our responsible commercial and residential developers" and driving them away from projects in Amherst.

But for the first time since Ward was supervisor more than 15 years ago, it's not business as usual in Amherst.


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