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Developer of student housing buys gun club site in Amherst Benderson sale follows failed mixed-use plan

American Campus Communities, a national developer of student housing that already has three projects in Amherst, has acquired the former Buffalo Shooting Club property on Maple Road in Amherst for $10.5 million, according to Erie County Clerk's Office records.

Benderson Development Co. sold the sprawling parcel after failing for years to win over community support for its own mixed-use project and then watching a prior sale of the property fall through.

Eric L. Recoon, vice president of Benderson, confirmed the sale of the entire property to American Campus. "We're pleased with today's outcome," Recoon said. "They're industry leaders in student housing. They have an established commitment to Buffalo, and in that environment, the property is in good hands."

Plans for the property are still uncertain, although they are likely to focus on off-campus student housing for the University at Buffalo's North Campus, which is located in sight of the vast gun club property. The property has undergone an extensive environmental cleanup to remove lead shot from 60 years of use as a shooting range.

"We're just holding the site for future development," said Gina Cowart, spokeswoman for Austin, Texas-based American Campus. "We don't have any plans as of yet as to what that would be."

However, the new owner has yet to contact either Amherst town planning officials or the community activists who have blocked previous development plans for the land.

"We have no applications. We've had no discussions with them," said Gary B. Black, Amherst's assistant planning director. "We really have no idea what their plans are."

"I do hope that we are going to have an opportunity to have some input into this new development, and that they just don't go ahead with plans without conferring with the neighbors in the area," said Judy Ferraro, a spokeswoman for the neighborhood Fairways Group.

American Campus Communities, a publicly traded real estate investment trust, is one of the nation's largest developers, owners and managers of student housing properties.

The company has developed more than $3.4 billion in properties for its own portfolio and for schools, and has acquired more than $2.8 billion in student housing since 1996. It also has operated as a third-party developer and manager of on-campus housing for 61 projects nationwide.

Locally, it developed the 800-bed University Village off-campus housing community on Sweet Home Road, across from Sweet Home High School, and another project on Chestnut Ridge Road. It currently is building a third project, the 600-bed Villas on Rensch, on Rensch Road directly across from one of the entrances to the North Campus. It also has other projects in the region.

Taking on the gun club land is a much bigger venture, however. The 34-acre property at 330 Maple Road, including an adjacent home at 218 Maple, has been somewhat of an albatross for Benderson, which had purchased it for $3.125 million in 2006 with high hopes for a massive mixed-use project.

Plans called for a $44 million, 276,000-square-foot "lifestyle center" and shopping destination, originally known as Amherst Town Centre and later University Town Centre.

But the effort ran into stiff opposition from nearby homeowners, who coalesced into the Fairways Group, fought the project through the town approval process and then sued to block it. The protracted battle and litigation dragged on, delaying the process until it was no longer profitable enough or feasible for Benderson to continue.

Meanwhile, the developer had agreed, under neighborhood pressure, to clean up the polluted property to residential standards under the state Department of Environmental Conservation's voluntary Brownfield Cleanup Program. With state oversight, Benderson had to clear vegetation and woody material, demolish and dispose of the former clubhouse, trap and skeet houses, remove lead shot from the soil, treat selected soil and dispose of other soil and debris.

That cleanup, which had to be completed by last December, is now finished. Recoon would not say how much the firm spent on the cleanup.

Benderson then tried to sell the property to Landmark Properties, a student housing developer from Georgia that planned low-density, cottage-style student housing. But the deal fell through last fall after Landmark balked at the asking price.

Recoon said that "there were a host of parties involved initially," so when that deal collapsed, "several of the interested parties renewed their interest, and ACC stepped up."

"It is not the outcome that we envisioned when we bought the property, and candidly, it's somewhat bittersweet," Recoon said, citing Benderson's original hopes. "But ultimately, time kills deals, and this project was killed by delays. We ultimately had to reverse course."

American Campus bought the property through ACC OP (Maple Road) LLC in two deals from Buffalo-Maple Road LLC and another Benderson entity, according to county deed records. But it may now face hurdles similar to those encountered by Benderson.

Amherst's Black said the property is zoned for general business, so ACC would have to get it rezoned if its plans are mostly residential. Even if the plans include significant retail, the rezoning for Benderson several years ago contained strict conditions that tied the development to the specific plans Benderson submitted, including for the layout, setbacks and height restrictions. Major changes would likely need new approvals, Black said.

And the community group already is starting out with skepticism. Ferraro noted that Landmark actually had reached out to the neighbors, to solicit their input, before its planned acquisition was even announced. That gave residents more comfort, and they eventually supported Landmark's plans.

"That's the way you handle it, and it was appreciated. It showed a very classy outfit that we were going to be dealing with," she said. "At this point, being that there has been no contact, you do wonder. I'm still hopeful."