Amherst seeks to jump-start review of long-delayed Westwood project - The Buffalo News

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Amherst seeks to jump-start review of long-delayed Westwood project

The Amherst town supervisor wants to jump-start its long-delayed review of the proposed redevelopment of the former Westwood Country Club, a move that is raising the ire of the developer and the Planning Board chairman.

The developer's complicated plan to transform the 171-acre site into a $250 million mixed use development has stalled since the Planning Board last held a hearing on the controversial proposal in January.

But Supervisor Barry A. Weinstein and Town Attorney Stanley J. Sliwa now say the town is ready to restart its review, with a goal of concluding that process by the end of the year. Weinstein wants the Town Board to hold a public hearing as soon as next month on the project's impact on the environment.

In a shift from past practice, Weinstein wants the Town Board to take control of the environmental review away from the Planning Board.

"The [environmental review] process has really stalled at the Planning Board level. It's been there since January. It's now August," Weinstein said.

The supervisor's push to get Westwood moving again caught the Planning Board chairman and the developer Mensch Capital by surprise. Andrew J. Shaevel, who leads the group of investors behind Mensch Capital, said Weinstein is wrong to aggressively accelerate the project timeline after the town spent months refusing to collaborate.

"They're trying to force this down our throats," Shaevel said.

Mensch Capital has filed four versions of its plan to overhaul the former country club since acquiring the property in 2012. The latest includes a mix of housing for 1,700 people, retail and commercial space and parkland.

Neighbors help shape 4th version of controversial Westwood project

The project would require rezoning much of the property. The developers have held meetings with residents since 2014, but neighbors continue to object to the project's scale, its effect on traffic and the loss of green space.

Opponents have raised a host of concerns about traffic safety, sewer, market-demand and environmental cleanup. Both town and Mensch representatives are collecting the information needed to respond to those concerns, and that's a key reason the project hasn't come back on the Planning Board agenda since January, Chairman Robert J. Gilmour said.

Gilmour said the Planning Board is waiting for a report from the town engineer on whether the downstream sanitary sewer system around Westwood has enough capacity to handle the increased flow from the Westwood development. That report is expected within the next month or so.

Gilmour said the Planning Board isn't allowing the developer to drag out the process, and Shaevel said Mensch isn't stalling in an attempt to run out the rest of Weinstein's tenure on the Town Board. Term limits bar Weinstein from running for re-election, and two other Town Board members also will be replaced in January following the November elections.

Shaevel said the developer simply is gathering input from residents and town officials, responding to concerns raised previously and preparing to introduce what is likely to be a fifth version of the project.

However, the Town Board recently hired a law firm to advise it on Westwood matters, approved the hiring of an environmental consultant and decided to require Mensch Capital to put $100,000 in an escrow account to cover the town's costs for the environmental review.

Will Amherst acquire Westwood Country Club through eminent domain?

Now, the Town Board wants to ramp up the review process.

If Weinstein's resolution is approved at Monday's Town Board meeting, the board will hold a public hearing on Sept. 18 on the Westwood project's environmental effect.

"I think things have been stagnant too long, and I think there's a consensus to move forward," said Councilwoman Ramona Popowich, who is leaving the Town Board at the end of the year.

Typically, the Planning Board starts the environmental review of a project, making a recommendation to the Town Board, which has the final say on whether a project will harm the environment.

"The Planning Board has specific things that they have to be responsible for and it's not up to the Town Board to do that. If they want to take that authority away from us, it's unacceptable," Gilmour said.

Sliwa said Town Board is exercising its right to act as lead agency in the environmental review of the Westwood project. Sliwa said staffers in his office aren't aware of the Town Board taking this step in another case.

Shaevel said he wasn't consulted and learned of the resolution from a reporter. He said it doesn't make sense for the town to speed up the review process now, after taking its time for so many months and years.

"What's now this sense of urgency in the supervisor's final four months of his tenure? I have no idea except that he's trying to kill the project before he leaves office," Shaevel said.

If the public hearing is set up, comments would be accepted through Sept. 29, and a vote on the environmental review likely won't take place until November, said Weinstein, who insisted he and other Town Board members are keeping an open mind about the project's merits.

Amherst may hire consultant for review of Westwood project

Sliwa said the town also wants to proceed with a vote on the rezoning application by the end of the year, and he hopes the project can get back on the Planning Board agenda for its Sept. 14 meeting.

Sliwa said his office has presented the accelerated timeline to Mensch's attorney, but Shaevel said that time frame is unrealistic.

"This is the most significant development project in the Town of Amherst in the last 10 years. I've said to you before, it's a marathon, not a sprint," Shaevel said.

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