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Frustrations boil over at Amherst meeting on Hyatt Place proposal

It’s been a long time since members of the Amherst Town Board were screamed at, but Monday night’s meeting definitely counted as a screaming and yelling affair. Some worried meeting observer, apparently, even called the police.

Frustrations surrounding the controversial Hyatt Place project led opponents to jeer and boo from the audience. Supervisor Barry Weinstein was called an “embarrassment” and a “Communist,” while other council members were denounced as “cowards.”

“I’ve never seen anything so disgusting in all my life,” said Livingston Parkway resident Dona Hue Ritter-Schmidt. “I would really appreciate it if you would at least give these people the respect to do what they asked, and respond to at least what you’re thinking, instead of treating us like a bunch of people who don’t mean anything.”

Monday night’s issue involved the rezoning of a natural area known as Mike’s Pond. The pond separates the property owned by Iskalo Development, where the Hyatt hotel is to be built, and the nearest neighborhood residents, who live on Livingston Parkway.

The zoning designation given to the pond has been important to the neighbors, even though nothing can be built there, because it affects how far away the Hyatt Place development can be built.

The pond has been partially zoned “general business,” but residents wanted the entire pond zoned “residential” in an attempt to change the project’s setbacks and push the hotel project farther away from their properties.

The first signs of meeting trouble began when roughly two dozen neighborhood residents turned out in support of the rezoning, but interested speakers failed to realize that they were required to sign up before the meeting started in order to address the board.

Weinstein, who occasionally informs the audience that sign-up is required, failed to do so at Monday’s meeting.

When Council Member Mark Manna, an outspoken backer of the residents, asked if residents who didn’t sign up could address the board, he was told no. When he made a motion to reopen the public comment period, no one seconded him.

“There are a lot of residents here who want to address the Town Board on two very important issues before we take a vote,” Manna said. “Surely we can extend to them that courtesy, seeing as how there’s practically nothing else on the agenda.”

Weinstein repeatedly called Manna out of order and told him to “stop grandstanding,” which only led to louder arguments by Manna and residents.

“You care more about the rules of order than being courteous to the people who pay your salary,” Manna said, to cheers and applause.

Not long after that, Weinstein asked for the board to take a position on the rezoning of Mike’s Pond. The board had held off on granting a residential zoning of the pond because Iskalo Development and the residents who own the pond disagree on the pond boundaries.

“I don’t understand how we, as a board, are supposed to make a judicial decision about exactly where that border is on behalf of the residents,” said Council Member Steven Sanders.

Weinstein said the matter may need to be resolved in court but that he felt the residents were owed a decision by the board before the Planning Board’s next meeting.

Weinstein asked that the board vote based on the survey provided by the residents. Because of a filed protest petition, the five council members (Richard “Jay” Anderson was absent) needed to vote unanimously.

Weinstein, Guy Marlette, Barbara Nuchereno and Manna voted yes, but Sanders, the last to cast his vote, voted no. Loud gasps rang out from the audience.

“How can you do that?” yelled one resident. “How can you do that? How can you just snub your nose at us?”

“Absolutely ridiculous!” cried another. “This is a circus, an absolute circus!”

Manna then attempted to introduce a resolution to put pressure on Weinstein and Nuchereno, both members of the Amherst Industrial Development Agency, to vote against tax breaks for the Hyatt project when it comes before the agency board March 22 in Amherst Council Chambers.

He didn’t get a second, and the town attorney concurred with the supervisor that it’s inappropriate to tell independent board members how to vote.

Boos rained down on the board. Manna also continued to loudly and bitterly criticize the board, further stirring the angry atmosphere.

When the board convened its second public expression period at the end of the meeting, more than a half-dozen Hyatt Place opponents heaped their anger and frustration upon the board.

When it was over, Sanders stunned everyone by asking to change his vote on the pond rezoning.

“I still think that the timing of this vote is wrong, but clearly the public feels that this will protect them from the hotel,” he said. “I’m not convinced that it will, but if that’s what they think, and that’s the way they feel this Town Board should represent them, then obviously it’s my obligation to represent the people, and so I will change my vote to a ‘yes’ on the rezoning.”

Iskalo Vice President David Chiazza said afterward that his company would “not necessarily” challenge the pond rezoning in court, saying that the site-plan setbacks may already accommodate the broader residential setback.

“I’m not sure it has any impact on our project,” he said.