Fight over proposed E. Amherst subdivision pits neighbor against neighbors - The Buffalo News

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Fight over proposed E. Amherst subdivision pits neighbor against neighbors

The family that wants to sell 59 acres in East Amherst for a controversial new subdivision called the project's foes selfish hypocrites in a sharply worded letter to 170 of their neighbors.

"The land that you do not maintain, the land that you do not pay taxes on, the land that some of you use for your own private park, your private dumping ground, or your private tranquility garden, remember that this land is not yours and we are the ones maintaining it and paying the taxes on it," wrote Richard and Lynn Jacobs and Richard's brother, Eric.

"… Where your house and yard sits, was also open green space not so long ago. It was perfectly fine when the development benefited you, and your house was built, but is off limits for us?" they asked.

The letter provides a rare look at how a proposed development can turn neighbors against neighbors and divide a community.

The Jacobs family had reached a breaking point when they mailed the letter to opponents of the $35 million project, which would bring 80 houses to the old farm between New Road and Millersport Highway.

It's no surprise that some neighbors oppose a plan to turn longstanding green space into housing. That happens frequently in the region's suburbs. But what makes this situation so unusual is the people who own the property eyed for development live among those neighbors — and they've become a focal point of that opposition.

The Jacobses blasted their critics because many live in homes in subdivisions built in the past 30 years under similar circumstances. They said the proposed development on their land wouldn't make traffic that much worse on New Road, and they said developer Natale Builders actually could help drainage in the area.

Most notably, the Jacobses accused opponents of repeatedly breaking into a barn on the New Road site, regularly trespassing at Richard and Lynn's nearby home and twice throwing eggs onto their property.

"The level that they're stooping to is, to me, very disappointing, very disheartening, very disconcerting," Richard Jacobs said in an interview with his wife in the office of their attorney, Jeffery Palumbo.

Leaders of the group that formed to fight back against the development say they have nothing to do with any alleged harassment of the Jacobs family. And they say the family made the allegations to distract from the legitimate objections they've raised.

"I think they're just trying to take away from the actual issues at hand," said Anthony Sgroi, who lives on New Road in a house built in 1951. He called the accusations "a smear campaign" against the anti-development leaders.

"I think one thing that's interesting about this letter is it (ticked) off a lot of people in the neighborhood. They felt it was very condescending," said Gray Birch Court resident Larry Rera, a project foe.

Family-owned for more than a century

The Jacobs family has owned the property at 284 New Road for more than 100 years.

The nearly 59-acre property is wedged in among several subdivisions that sprouted up in recent decades and is located just to the east of where the Lockport Expressway ends at Millersport Highway. Town property records show the property and its buildings are assessed at $207,000 and annual property taxes are about $6,800.

Richard Jacobs said he helped work the land as a young man, raising wheat, corn and tomatoes there, before the farm was shut down in the mid-1980s.

The family land is now owned by the Richard Jacobs Trust. Richard and Lynn bought land from the trust to build their home on neighboring Snowberry Lane.

Richard and Lynn Jacobs say they've decided to sell the land for financial reasons and out of frustration over how some neighbors have treated the property.

"We've grown very weary of it," Lynn said.

Richard Jacobs showed photographs he said were taken on the property of piles of leaves, grass clippings, pressure-treated wood and a Christmas tree dumped behind the homes that line 284 New.

Yellow signs opposing a proposed subdivision at 284 New Road dot lawns in the Amherst neighborhood. Natale Builders plans to build 80 homes on the undeveloped land owned by the Richard Jacobs Trust. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

Neighbors wanted to buy land

Rera and Paul Boser, also Gray Birch Court residents, say they were annoyed to find out the Jacobses were selling to Natale Builders because residents in their subdivision have offered to buy a portion of the property over the years, but Richard and his father always declined.

Once neighbors learned about Natale's plans, they swiftly raised concerns about the project’s effects on wetlands, water drainage, traffic levels, pedestrian safety and the wildlife that now call the Jacobs property home.

Eleven of them spoke against the project at the April Planning Board hearing where the board recommended approving the required zoning change.

New East Amherst subdivision clears first hurdle despite criticism

A core group of critics formed the New Road Family Safety Association, which organized opposition to the project, oversaw a lively Facebook page and kept tabs on the approval process.

The association's leaders passed out 125 bright yellow signs in the subdivisions near the Jacobs property and along New Road that decry the "dangerous rezoning" plan.

Richard and Lynn Jacobs said they have complained about comments made on the association's Facebook page that they consider harassment.

Accusations and eggs are flying

Richard and Lynn Jacobs say "repeated menacing acts" began the night of Natale's meeting with neighbors to unveil his development plans.

"It was not a super contentious meeting," said Angelo Natale, president of Natale Builders.

But the Jacobses described subsequent trespassing on their 284 New Road and Snowberry Lane properties, breaking and entering of a barn on the 284 New property and two eggings. The night of the April 17 meeting, the Jacobses say, someone drove through their New Road property and sped up their Snowberry Lane driveway, blaring the horn the whole time.

"Adult bullying is what it is," Lynn Jacobs said.

Richard and Lynn installed surveillance cameras and a motion detector on both properties in September. The cameras have captured at least three men of varying ages, none of whom the Jacobses have identified, along with at least one vehicle.

Rera said he has seen the image of one trespasser, whom he believes is a teenager prankster.

Rera, Sgroi and Boser, who are among the most vocal foes of the project, all denied involvement in any harassment and they condemned it if it is happening.

Assistant Police Chief Charles Cohen said Amherst police received two calls about eggings at the Jacobs' Snowberry Lane home and two reports of criminal trespass at 284 New Road. He said no arrests have been made.

'Amherst is overdeveloped' 

In their letter to neighbors, the Jacobses argued that they had a right to sell their land.

The Jacobses say the opponents, especially those whose properties adjoin 284 New Road, simply want to keep the land as an extension of their backyards.

It's hypocritical to oppose this subdivision, they said, when many of the opponents themselves live in homes that were built 20 or 30 years ago on former green space.

Boser said he respects the Jacobses' property rights, but he opposes changing the zoning to allow for redevelopment. "I'm of the view that Amherst is overdeveloped," he said.

East Amherst subdivision on hold as developer eyes adding sidewalks

Not every neighbor opposes the project.

"He's paid his taxes. He's paid his dues," said Steve Hehr, who is in his 50s and has lived his whole life in a house on New Road that is 70 years old. "Rich has every right to develop that land."

What's next?

The project faces an uncertain future.

It's on the Town Board agenda for March. If the Town Board rezones the property, the Planning Board then would have to approve the site plan.

Natale has lost one construction season, but it would look to start work next year, pending the approvals.

Richard and Lynn Jacobs say they were just trying to get out their side of the dispute in their letter to neighbors.

"Most of the people were either indifferent, or riding the fence, and they polarized them against us," Richard Jacobs said of the opposition leaders. "We feel pretty unwelcome now."

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