A plan to construct up to 80 homes on a sprawling piece of vacant land in East Amherst came under fire from neighbors but cleared the first hurdle Thursday night at the town Planning Board.

The board voted 5-1 to recommend rezoning 49 acres of the 57-acre property on New Road near Millersport Highway, from suburban agricultural to residential, to make way for by Natale Builders' plan to build a mix of patio and single-family homes there.

The rezoning request now goes to the Town Board for approval, and if that happens the project would come back to the Planning Board for further review.

The board decision came after residents who live near the site and some members of the Amherst Planning Board raised concerns about the project's effect on water drainage, wetlands, traffic levels, pedestrian safety and the wildlife that now call the property home.

"It's a shame if you let this happen," said Rosemary Conley, an Autumn Meadows Lane resident, one of 11 neighbors who spoke against the project at a public hearing. One town resident said he was undecided.

Jeffery Palumbo, an attorney from Barclay Damon who represents Natale, defended the project as fitting the character of the neighborhood and in keeping with the town's comprehensive plan. He went further in decrying the not-in-my-backyard attitude he heard from some residents, who feared losing their pastoral views.

"People have a right to develop property," Palumbo said.

Angelo S. Natale, the president and owner of Natale Builders, met with neighbors on Monday. He said during a break in Thursday's meeting, after hearing a second round of residents' objections to the development, that the project is in its early stages.

"We have to address the neighborhood concerns," Natale said.

Natale Builders filed an application with the town Planning Department last month laying out its plans for the property at 284 New Road. The company has the parcel under contract from its owner, the Richard Jacobs Trust, but has not closed the sale.

The project site plan divides the property into 89 lots, with 63 lots for single-family homes and 26 lots for patio homes. But at least 2.6 acres of wetlands cover the lots so Natale likely only will be able to build up to 80 homes, Natale said previously.

During the brief interview Thursday, he said the patio homes could sell for the upper $200,000s or $300,000 while the single-family homes could range in price from $300,000 to $600,000. The company's investment in the site, including infrastructure, could reach $35 million, Natale said.

That's only if the project wins approval,  and neighbors of the site were lining up in opposition at Thursday night's hearing.

Larry Rera, who lives on Gray Birch Court, said drainage and flooding after storms are such problems on and near the Jacobs property that he's not sure the homes in the Autumn Meadows subdivision where he lives should have been built 20-plus years ago.

"Putting 89 homes in an area that is a swamp is ludicrous," Rera said.

Anthony Sgroi lives on New Road, a two-lane, county-maintained road that doesn't have shoulders or sidewalks between Smith and North French roads. He said traffic already is bad enough on the road, where pedestrians, bicyclists and drivers sometimes end up in the ditches that line the side of the road, and it would be worse with the development.

"Simply put, New Road cannot support the addition of new homes in this area," Sgroi said.

David Flynn, another Gray Birch Court resident, said he thinks a number of the concerns raised by residents could be addressed by the developer through, for example, easements and buffering.

"Unfortunately, we're not getting any of the love back from the developer in that regard," Flynn said.

Palumbo, the developer's attorney, said everyone recognizes there is water on the property. He said it's not Natale's obligation to solve the drainage problems in that area, but he did say the builder will mitigate it and flooding will less after the work.

The Planning Board's role Thursday night, however, was to address a question of rezoning, Palumbo said.

"This is a land use issue. This is not a drainage issue," he said.

Board members pressed Palumbo on the size and location of the wetlands on the property and raised concerns about the ability of New Road to absorb the additional traffic from the project.

There are 18 acres of wetlands on the property, but Natale seeks to preserve just more than 15 acres of wetlands and build on 2.6 acres. The company would need to mitigate or create new wetlands, on or off the site, for any wetlands it disturbs.

"I think we need to, if nothing else, send the developer a pretty clear message that they're going to have to address a lot of issues related to the public safety and the drainage," said board member Steven Herberger.

Ultimately, the board voted to recommend approval of the rezoning request, with Mary Shapiro casting the only "No" vote. The board did include a request urging the reconstruction of New Road.

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