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DEVELOPER PRESSES AMHERST PROJECT STATE SETS HEARING ON 264 RENTAL UNITS PROPOSED NEAR ECC NORTH CAMPUS

The nation's largest residential developer is forging ahead with plans for 264 units of apartments near the Erie Community College North Campus, despite Amherst Town Board actions that neighbors hoped would block a rental project.

Low-income housing across Youngs Road from the ECC campus is included in the $25 million "Town Green" project. The state Housing Finance Agency will hold a public hearing on the project at 7 p.m. Tuesday in the Town Hall.

Trammell Crow Residential of New Canaan, Conn. -- leader among the nation's residential developers in new housing "starts" for the past five years -- seeks to finance most of the project with $20 million in tax-exempt Housing Finance Agency revenue bonds. Officials said that to qualify for the bonds, the developer must designate at least 20 percent of the 264 apartments for tenants earning no more than 50 percent of the median income in the Buffalo metropolitan area.

Under those guidelines, maximum annual earnings for low-income tenants would be: one person, $11,750; two persons, $13,450; three persons, $15,100, and four persons, $16,800.

During Town Board hearings last summer, attorneys for Trammell Crow said the one-, two- and three-bedroom, garden-style apartments would rent for $500 to $850 a month.

At the time, the developer estimated the total project cost at $33 million. In the state Housing Finance Agency's legal notice for the Tuesday hearing, the project's total cost is listed as $25 million.

Project amenities include a community center with a swimming pool, racquetball courts and an exercise room, and apartments featuring fireplaces, "designer" kitchens, walk-in closets, wall-to-wall carpeting, outside decks, separately metered utilities, and space for full-size washers and dryers.

When it rezoned the 27-acre site for multiple dwellings in 1985, the Town Board imposed a long list of conditions negotiated with a previous developer by the Southeast Amherst-Williamsville Homeowners Association.

Trammell Crow is challenging the town building commissioner's interpretation of two of the conditions -- that the units be for-sale and the 32, two-story apartment buildings be of "substantially all-brick" construction -- before the Amherst Zoning Board of Appeals.

The Zoning Board next meets on Jan. 15, but town officials are saying privately that the two conditions may be unenforceable.

The Town Board on Aug. 6 unanimously refused to lift conditions that the units be for sale and that they be built of "substantially all brick." Trammell Crow wanted to substitute a vinyl, clapboard-like siding for brick.

The board's action followed a public hearing July 16, when officials said they received letters and petitions with 394 signatures from people opposed to rental apartments.

At the July 16 hearing, neighbors reminded the board that for-resale condominiums and town houses were proposed when the 27-acre site was rezoned in 1985, with the approval of the homeowners association.

But officials this week said that the town would probably lose a fair-housing lawsuit if it tried to block a rental project in favor of for-sale units.

"State statutes authorizing zoning ordinances permit regulations as to the use of the land, not its ownership," said one official who asked not to be identified.

"That means that under the guise of zoning ordinances, you can't require that dwellings be owner-occupied and not for rent," the official said.

Officials said the town may also have trouble defending the "substantially all-brick" condition.

"You might be able to impose an architectural restriction like that if existing structures in the area were already substantially all brick' -- assuming substantially' was defined -- but that is not the case in this (project area)," a town official said.

According to its bond application to the Housing Finance Agency, Trammell Crow anticipates that Town Green will gross about $2.2 million in rentals annually.

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