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REPUBLICANS RESPOND TO ATTACKS OVER ENVIRONMENT

First, they were lambasted for backing out of a candidates' forum on environmental issues just before the Republican primary in Amherst last month.

Then came criticism for not appearing at any of the three informal hearings held this year on a more than 1,300-acre nature preserve and park planned in the northwestern part of the town.

Portrayed by Amherst Democrats as pro-development and anti-environment, the three Republican candidates for Town Board seats in the Nov. 4 election fired back this week, portraying Democrats as all talk and no action on the environment.

While "our track record on environmental issues is a record to be proud of . . . local Democrats . . . talk a lot about it, but do little or nothing," GOP Council Members Jane S. Woodward, James P. Hayes and Planning Board member Robert C. Simmons said in a joint statement.

Their record includes town acquisition of "over 1,300 contiguous acres of green space, an area larger than the Village of Williamsville, for Amherst residents to enjoy forever, without fear of future development," the Republicans asserted.

However, two of the three parcels that make up the 1,300-acre nature preserve and park were acquired before Hayes and Mrs. Woodward were on the Town Board. Other Republicans dominated the town boards that approved the purchase of about 500 acres in 1987 for $617,029 and about 40 more for $153,184 in September 1990, one month before Mrs. Woodward joined the board.

The largest parcel, more than 750 acres of wetlands, was donated to the town by the state Urban Development Corp, but it took almost four years -- from June 1992 to January 1996 -- for the town to actually obtain title to the land. Mrs. Woodward played an important role in getting the 750-acre parcel under town ownership, going toe to toe with officials from the state agency during a dispute two summers ago. "Who knows? We might still not have more than half of that (1,300-acre) property if it weren't for Jane," one town official said recently.

All three Republican hopefuls -- Mrs. Woodward and Hayes as Town Board members, and Simmons as a Planning Board member -- took part in votes that rezoned the 750-acre wetlands parcel to "major open space" in the summer of 1995.

Those votes "reflect(ed) once again the Republican philosophy of acquiring and expanding green space," the GOP candidates said in their statement this week. And the Republican majority on the Town Board "has been discussing and directing studies and meetings over the last several years to outline conservation ideas" for the huge new preserve and park, they said.

A 65-acre portion of the site adjacent to the Erie Canal is being developed as a picnic and recreation area with boat launching facilities, which the three Republicans described as "a first for Amherst and another example of Republican environmental efforts."

Add the new foot and bike trail along the canal between the park and the Amherst Museum on the other side of town, and "it proves beyond a doubt that Republicans have led the (recreation and conservation) efforts, despite the reluctance and outright refusal of the Democrats," they asserted.

"Only the Democrats voted against" acquisition of the 750-acre wetlands portion of the new preserve and park, the Republicans said, recalling the partisan 4-3 vote in favor of an agreement with the owner of the land, the Urban Development Corp., in June 1992.

Under the agreement, the agency offered to donate the 750 acres, resume payments in lieu of taxes on its other vacant properties in the town, and submit to development reviews stricter than those for other developers.

In return, the town agreed to waive $138,000 in back land taxes, approve the 66-acre Bryant Woods Office Park project and agree in concept to office and industrial park-type development in a 300-acre sector south of North French Road.

Democrats on the board, including Council Member Peggy Santillo and then-Supervisor Daniel J. Ward, a candidate for the Town Board next month, opposed the wetlands-for-office park trade, arguing the town should hold off at least until the state agency settled a 10-year-old tax dispute with the Williamsville School District.

Ward insisted the state agency had no business operating in the suburban town. The Democrat said the state wetlands were mostly undevelopable anyway and could be further protected by local legislation, which the GOP-controlled Town Board rejected.

But the GOP candidates' statement this week claimed that Ward "not only refused to vote for this expansion of green space in 1992, but (also) attended none of the meetings held on the subject this summer. He didn't care then and he doesn't care now."

The board approved the Bryant Woods project in March 1993, with Mrs. Woodward applauding the wetlands donation it triggered.

But it wasn't the town's -- yet.

When the state agency approached the town for a rezoning for a large apartment project in 1995, it still held title to the wetlands. In the sometimes heated dispute that ensued, Mrs. Woodward accused the agency of reneging on the 1992 agreement and holding up the title until the town approved the big apartment complex. However, the town wouldn't approve the apartments and finally obtained title to the land from the agency in January 1996.

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