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Wheatfield, a town 'at a crossroads'

WHEATFIELD -- "A new home for your family."

The simple message is posted on the large sign near the site of a planned church and low-income housing project off Shawnee Road, near Niagara Falls Boulevard.

The Town Homes of Shawnee Landing will include 64 affordable housing units, a new church, a community building and a day-care center.

The project is beginning to take shape on an 8-acre parcel in a part of town that features a mix of commercial, manufacturing and residential lots.

Going south on Shawnee from Mapleton Road, the 55-mph speed limit slows to 45 near Niagara Falls Boulevard. Along the way are homes of all types and ages: farm houses, an old barn with faded "chew tobacco" advertisements, a nursery and several subdivisions.

Residents in many of those subdivisions have complained that Shawnee Landing is not consistent with the overall scheme of the area. They contend that a housing project for the poor does not belong among homes valued at $200,000 to $400,000.

A housing development for low-income families may be needed in town, they said, but it is not a good fit here. They have asked why it can't be put somewhere else.

Project opponents have shown up in large numbers at Town Hall and in other civic buildings since December to vent about traffic, drainage, school overcrowding and social conformity in general and The Town Homes of Shawnee Landing in particular.

As they've vented, the project has begun to emerge, as has a campaign to help educate those in town who see Shawnee Landing in negative terms.

"People don't appreciate that we need the people who need affordable housing," said Doug Carpenter, communications manager for Belmont Shelter Corp. of Buffalo, one of the three project developers. "They are the ones who care for our kids, clean our offices."

The project is being developed by Belmont, Buffalo businessman Paul Granville and the Church at Shawnee Landing, which owns another 15 acres adjacent to the site.

Formerly known as Payne Avenue Christian Church in North Tonawanda, the church plans a "safe haven" for day care and family services, a life center for recreation and banquets and the church.

The developers would not have received financing for the project if there wasn't an existing need in the growing town, Carpenter said.

A lawsuit aimed at stopping the project was threatened in late December, but Town Attorney Robert O'Toole said last week the town has not yet been served.

Carpenter said the developers have received all the necessary permits and approvals and already are into the project too deep, financially and otherwise, to turn back now.

In about a year, he predicted, Shawnee Landing will open its doors to school aides, sales clerks, day-care providers, custodians, nursing home workers and others in working families who don't have the financial means to buy a house in one of the neighboring subdivisions.

About one-third of town residents would qualify to live at Shawnee Landing, Carpenter said. He said the developers understand that Wheatfield is a town "at a crossroad" and are determined to build -- and maintain -- a quality project that fits a community need.

"This housing complex will have everything any well-run housing complex will have," he vowed.

The project will provide affordable rents to households that earn between $24,000 and $35,000, Carpenter said.

Rents will range from $400 to $600 a month for apartments that have one to four bedrooms.

>Population soars

Racism and classism have colored the debate over Shawnee Landing, but so have concerns about growing pains. Complaints about traffic congestion, flooded backyards and basements and crowded classrooms have been repeated for years at nearly every public meeting about residential construction projects.
U.S. Census figures show Wheatfield's population increased by more than 40 percent since 1990, when the housing boom was in full swing, to 15,768 in 2005.

Home building has leveled off somewhat during the last few years. The 1980s saw about 200 houses going up every year, according to town records. That number has gone to about 140 homes a year, with a recent low of 126 in 2005, Town Building Inspector Jennifer Caldwell said.
There was an increase to 143 last year, and Caldwell said she expects 120 to 140 to go up this year.

"The Shawnee area is new," she said. "In the last five, 10 years, sewers have gone in and have opened up development in what was a remote area."

Growth has hit her department so hard the Town Board has had to put on two additional building inspectors to help her handle all the construction. Each construction job requires at least four inspections, she said.

Also hit hard is the Niagara-Wheatfield Central School District, which pays about $8,281 a year -- after state aid -- to educate each child, according to district figures.

School officials noted the student population growth could be handled more easily if it were spread throughout the district.

It isn't.

"Every development is affecting Errick Road [Elementary School]," Superintendent Judith Howard said. "We have to hire more teachers, build more space and buy more buses.

"I understand we will always see increased enrollment here, but we only have one elementary school in Wheatfield."

As a result, boundaries for each school have been redrawn. Some of the overflow has been sent to West Street Elementary in the hamlet of Sanborn, Town of Cambria.

"There is no more room to expand at Errick Road. It's landlocked," the superintendent said.

A steady influx of students has been consistent with the population growth, and the district has addressed it with more buildings and school additions during the past decade. School officials have tried to maintain a presence at town meetings to monitor development plans.

Drainage patterns also have been impacted by the new construction. If new buildings are higher than exiting structures, the groundwater runs down into the backyards and basements of older dwellings.

In a town with naturally flat topography, drainage is an ongoing concern, a work in progress that has its own committee and is discussed at nearly every meeting. Most developments have huge lakes that act as retention ponds.

Around Shawnee Landing, the drainage is being handled with ditches and drainage tiles.

The Town Board recently tabled a proposed pump station for the area. The project developers have agreed to pay $100,000 of the $400,000 cost.

>Traffic biggest concern

Traffic -- both during construction and after the opening -- has been the biggest concern voiced.

Supervisor Timothy E. Demler closed off the only access from Klemer and Demler roads last month because he said the two-lane road could not handle the construction vehicles. He said he wants the access cut off permanently.

O'Toole said he believed the equipment would cause Klemer and Demler roads to crumble.

Town crews put pylons, "caution" tape and wooden barricades across the entrance, but workers still seem to be using it for at least small trucks.

Attention now has switched to the other side of the church's property, where workers were seen last week putting in a driveway to bring vehicles in from Shawnee Road.

Michael Riegel of Belmont said the contractors are putting in a temporary access to Shawnee as a concession to the town -- something O'Toole said is a big step in addressing the traffic concerns brought up during recent meetings.

"Shawnee is a better alternative," O'Toole said. "Is it perfect? No, but you have to believe it really improves the situation for many people."

Demler agreed that adding another traffic entrance on Shawnee -- especially across the road from Smurfit-Stone, a corrugated container manufacturer -- is not the most ideal solution.

>Demler takes heat

Demler has focused on traffic as the No. 1 snarl in the entire project. He has used it in a recent letter to try to stop government funding for the project.

Another traffic study on Shawnee, a state-controlled route, is crucial at this point, the supervisor said. One solution may be another traffic light to help control the flow to the boulevard, he said.

Several Wheatfield residents have contacted The Buffalo News to say they support the project and did not want to the town to be portrayed as being in opposition because of race or class.

Those supporters also shared concerns about traffic and other growth-related issues.

As the controversy grew last month, Demler found himself near the center. Residents accused him and the board of not knowing the project was switched from one for seniors to a low-income development.

When it became known that in 2004 the supervisor sent a letter in support for Shawnee Landing to help the project win federal and state funding, some residents questioned why he now supports a goal to halt the project during an election year for town officials.

Demler downplayed the significance of the letter. He called it "a boiler plate letter" that is sent for many similar projects.

"Our concern is the same for any project. I don't think anyone on the Town Board back-peddled," he said.

The board was led to believe the project, at least in the first phase, was intended for seniors and the disabled only, he claimed.

The letter outlined the town's support for "seniors, the church and affordable housing," he explained.

Still, a new Wheatfield Residents Action Committee threatens political action against Demler and Councilmen Larry Helwig and Gil Doucet, who are up for re-election in November. At one of its first meetings, committee members handed out voter registration forms to other neighbors.

Since then, Demler has met with committee members and said last week he sent letters to stop funding for the project.

The letters went to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and State Sen. George Maziarz, R-Newfane.

Even if the funding is held up, there is a question about what the impact on the project would be. The state and federal grants total about $627,000, when the entire project has been earmarked to cost nearly $9.9 million.

Demler said he thought the State Housing Trust Fund's 1 percent interest loan of $1,658,000 could take a hit, too, because of his letter.

More than $6 million is coming from a state Division for Housing and Community Renewal tax credit plan. Belmont secured another $640,000 low-interest loan from the Federal Home Loan Bank.

Despite some criticism of his association with Shawnee Landing Church, Demler stressed he is "not a member."

He said he was baptized at the church when it was in North Tonawanda, left in 1978 and has had no connection to the congregation since.

Carpenter, the Belmont communications manager, said time will show that some of the fears raised in the Shawnee Landing debate were unfounded. The developers, meanwhile, will work to help ease the growing pains.

There is always a misconception about low-income housing that is based on what "people don't know, as opposed to what they know," he said.

For example, he said, "One requirement [for project approval] is to do a market survey that must show a need for that type of housing for people in that community, not for people from other areas."

Demler said it was the responsibility of those "at the top of the ladder to reach back and pull up those behind them."

"My position is that we support affordable housing," he said. "We're not setting income limits for the town. I understand the concerns, but we will address them as best we can. We need to help our fellow residents."


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