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Neighbors of Amherst development create snag Town Centre might need 'supermajority'

Benderson Development bought the 32-acre Amherst Shooting Club on Maple Road with ambitious plans to turn it into a $44 million "lifestyle center" blending residential, commercial and retail development in a villagelike layout.

But the developer now faces a major hurdle in its efforts to get the plan approved.

Residents living near the gun club property recently submitted a protest petition that means a "supermajority" approval will be needed to rezone the site for commercial development.

Supermajority translates into six of seven Town Board members voting "yes" to the Amherst Town Centre proposal in order for the developer to proceed.

"It's a great burden to overcome," Benderson Vice President Eric Recoon said.

Even so, Recoon said, he's hopeful the plan will gain rezoning approval in the next month or two.

Ideally, he said, Amherst Town Centre construction could start next summer, and shops could be open in time for the 2009 holiday season.

But Democratic Council members Daniel Ward and Deborah Bruch Bucki oppose efforts to rezone the property from "community facility" to "general business."

"If you're going to ask us to go stomp on a neighborhood, there had better be a compelling interest," Ward said. "But this is just another commercial extravaganza that could go anywhere."

In order for Benderson to move forward, the company must either successfully change a council member's mind, or influence enough petition signers to get their names removed from the original petition so that it no longer meets state supermajority requirements.

As part of this effort, Benderson is waging a public relations campaign to highlight the most positive aspects of its development. Company representatives met with The Buffalo News last week to address critics.

"We're seeking any assistance we can in helping us get word out about the benefits of this plan," Recoon said.

Amherst Town Centre would combine first-level retail, upper-story offices and apartments, as well as public gathering places. A townhouse condominium development would anchor the western end of the project, while a five-story hotel and community center would anchor its northeast end.

The developer says the project will be heavily landscaped and pedestrian-friendly, featuring attractive walkways and bikeways linked to both the Ellicott Creek and University at Buffalo pathways. Grassy medians would be added to Maple Road to slow traffic and create a welcoming entrance, he said.

Representatives have pointed out that the project would add $44 million to Amherst's tax assessment base, which would translate into $170,000 a year in taxes for the town and $1 million a year to the Sweet Home School District.

They also said the project would include the cleanup of the property that has been contaminated with lead shot and clay pigeons since 1944.

Recoon also stated that UB officials fully support the development, which would sit a short distance from UB and the town's Pepsi Center.

Because the shooting club property shares a boundary with the town-owned Audubon Golf Course, Benderson representatives have also expressed willingness to assist the town upgrading golf course drainage.

Some surrounding residents have expressed serious concerns about the project, particularly traffic and access issues. They argue that a high-density development like Amherst Town Centre is inappropriate for the Maple Road corridor.

And if the town permits Benderson to rezone the property for general business, some fear there's nothing to stop the developer from setting up a Super Wal-Mart or some other objectionable retailer on the property down the road.

In response, Recoon said his company is willing to agree to any reasonable restrictions the Town Board wants to place on the project regarding the type of retail ventures that could locate there in the future.

e-mail: stan@buffnews.com

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