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Amherst weighs using eminent domain to take 'blighted' former gas station site

Amherst may try to use eminent domain to take over a former gas station property in Eggertsville that town officials for two decades have blasted as an unwelcome eyesore.

A resolution on the agenda for Wednesday's Town Board meeting would start eminent domain proceedings for the former Red Apple gas station at Kenmore Avenue and Niagara Falls Boulevard owned by United Refining Co.

Municipalities have stirred up controversy when they've attempted to use the eminent domain process to acquire property, and the matter can end up in court.

A second resolution would approve the town's purchase of a neighboring property on Kenmore Avenue for $193,950.

The resolutions decry the "deteriorating and blighted condition" of both properties and show the town would convert the combined parcel into a gateway park.

"Now is the time. We need to indicate what our intentions are on Niagara Falls Boulevard, and there's no better place to do it than right at the intersection with Kenmore," Amherst Supervisor Brian J. Kulpa said in an interview. "The bottom line is there's a rare opportunity where the neighboring parcel is available on the market. So now is the time to act."

Kulpa has made improving the prominent property a priority of his since taking office in January. But he's not the first town official to complain about the site's condition, as The Buffalo News reported one month ago.

The Red Apple at 159 Niagara Falls Blvd. closed in the late 1990s. By 2001, town leaders floated a plan to let the Eggertsville Fire Company demolish the vacant store as part of a training exercise and to replace the structure with a grassy field and a "Welcome to Amherst" sign. Nothing ever came of it.

The store and pumps came down a dozen years ago, but it remains a gravel and asphalt lot surrounded on all sides by concrete barriers.

"It's been a moonscape since 2006," Town Attorney Stanley J. Sliwa said.

By 2015, the Town Board was so frustrated that members agreed to explore whether the town could acquire the property through eminent domain. But, again, nothing happened.

This is one of five vacant former Red Apple or Kwik Fill properties that United Refining owns in Erie County.

'Zombie' gas station lots frustrate municipalities throughout Erie County

Amherst officials say the Niagara Falls Boulevard site is particularly troublesome because it sits at the border of Amherst, the Town of Tonawanda and the City of Buffalo, a gateway property passed by tens of thousands of motorists every day.

The neighboring parcel at 143 Kenmore Ave. wraps around the former gas station, to the north and the east, and includes a one-time hair salon that has been closed for months.

The two Town Board resolutions would give Kulpa the authority to buy the hair salon property on the town's behalf and would give the town attorney and the town Planning Department the green light to start eminent domain proceedings.

The town is looking to partner with the private sector on a redevelopment of most of the property and also incorporate a pocket park, signs welcoming people to Amherst and an off-road bus shelter for public transit riders, Kulpa said.

"We would love to see a nice gateway element there – some kind of park, some kind of signage," Kulpa said. "But more importantly, we want a safe place for people off that intersection. It's a busy intersection."

Eminent domain gives the government the right to acquire private property, for a public use, as long as it pays fair compensation to the former property owner. The property is assessed at $32,000.

The town would have to show the property is necessary for this public improvement and must hold a public hearing on its plans. Sliwa said that wouldn't happen until late June or early July, based on the need to provide sufficient notice. United Refining could try to block the town by filing a legal challenge.

Sliwa also said the eminent domain process could end up with a negotiated purchase, if the town can make a deal with United Refining.

United Refining has told The Buffalo News it is willing to replace the concrete barriers with something more attractive and to grant a rolling lease to the town that would let it spruce up the site and post a "Welcome" sign while maintaining United Refining's ownership. A company official did not respond to requests for comment Friday afternoon and Monday morning.

News Staff Reporter Joseph Popiolkowski contributed to this report.

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