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NEIGHBORS RAISING CASH TO SAVE WOODS FROM BUILDERS

Whenever William Milliken Jr. needed peace and serenity during the past four decades, he wandered around a slice of paradise in Amherst.

Trails wind through a heavily wooded, 21-acre parcel behind Milliken's house on the eastern outskirts of Williamsville. The parcel features a 5-acre stand of 40-foot-high evergreens, the highlight of the 86-year-old man's daily walk.

"I know it so well that I go out in the middle of the night, when it's pitch black, and I don't get lost," said Milliken, an aeronautics engineer.

He worries now that the trees may be lost.

For builders at Marrano/Marc Equity and Cimato Brothers, the parcel holds a purpose other than undeveloped beauty. The developers own the land, and they make their living building homes.

Milliken and his neighbors on Brompton Road have fought the developers' plans for a 70-home subdivision, which would require the forest to be cut. Neighbors contend that building small homes on the parcel will devalue existing homes and that the development will bring more traffic into an already congested area.

In March, the neighbors failed to persuade Town Hall to rezone about 175 acres in the Brompton Road area to require larger lots for homes. Then they lost court challenges trying to overturn the town's ruling.

If the neighbors want to preserve the forest, they're going to have to dig deep into their own pockets to buy it.

The developers have agreed to sell about 12 acres, which include the forest, to a group of Brompton Road homeowners whose lots adjoin or sit near the parcel. The asking price is $625,000, or $50,772 an acre.

Residents who live off Brompton Road between Main Street and Sheridan Drive include lawyers, doctors and engineers. Many of them live in large homes, and the evergreen trees are near their back yards.

They have raised about $436,000, enough to buy nearly 9 acres.

The neighbors have asked the Western New York Land Conservancy to negotiate on their behalf with the developers. So far, a deal has not been reached.

The Town of Amherst, with the help of the conservancy, recently bought the development rights to protect farmland in north Amherst. And government initiatives to preserve green space were a main theme in November's town election campaigns.

But the Brompton Road neighbors are trying to buy the land themselves -- without government involvement -- and then turn it over to a land conservancy to keep the land undeveloped.

"Wouldn't it be a shame to cut all this down? It'd be a sin, I think," Milliken said Saturday as he walked among the evergreen trees. "If we don't own the property, there's nothing we can do about it."

No deadline for a sale has been set for the neighbors.

But at some point, the homeowners must come up with the money or arrange some other deal acceptable to Marrano/Marc Equity and Cimato Brothers, said lawyer Jeffery D. Palumbo, who represents the developers.

Otherwise, the developers will move forward with their plans for the parcel, Palumbo said.

"We haven't given up hope," said Beatrice Foti, one of the neighbors who has agreed to pay for the land. "But we're running out of time."

Amherst Supervisor Susan J. Grelick said the town would try to find grants for the neighbors, but she isn't optimistic. The town will not give its money to the Brompton Road neighbors, she said.

The Western New York Land Conservancy is willing to help the neighbors, but it cannot do so financially, said John Whitney, a director and treasurer of the conservancy.

"We don't have that kind of money," Whitney said.

Milliken said Patrick Marrano, president of Marrano/Marc Equity Corp. of West Seneca, has shown a willingness to deal with the neighbors.

"We're not fighting Marrano," Milliken said. "He's a reasonable guy. He bought the land. It's his property, and he can do anything the zoning permits him to do. I just hope we can reach some kind of deal."

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