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TOWN TO BORROW $300,000 FOR FARMLAND CONSERVATION

Amherst will continue its farmland preservation program, despite objections over how it isfinanced from Supervisor Susan J. Grelick.

The Town Board voted last week to borrow $300,000 for the program, which supporters have called the most effective tool available to slow growth and maintain existing property values.

Ms. Grelick calls it something else: a waste of money.

"It's the most expensive way to control development," she said. "Voting no on rezonings is much less expensive. We have to make the most effective utilization of taxpayer dollars."

Ms. Grelick pointed out that the $300,000 loan would cost taxpayers a total of $636,446 when the interest is included. Council Member William Kindel countered that the $18 million borrowed for the Pepsi Center, which Ms. Grelick supported, will cost taxpayers $35.4 million with interest and fees included.

Of the $300,000 to be borrowed, $50,000 is to match a state grant the town already received. The other $250,000 is for a matching grant the town has applied for but has not yet received.

"We borrowed this money for a grant we may not receive," Ms. Grelick said. "The chances that we'll need the $250,000 don't seem to be too good."

The state grant would have to be for $1 million for the town to have to match it with $250,000. The largest grant the town ever received to protect farmland was for $385,000, and the most recent grant was for $200,000.

Amherst was one of the first communities in the state to slow growth by buying the development rights to farmland. The theory is that by preventing developers from building on the open space, the homes already built are worth more and taxes don't rise because it's not necessary to install new sewers and water lines.

So far, the program has spent $767,000 to buy the development rights to 215 acres.

"We need to sell the old houses. We don't need new ones," Kindel said. "This is one of the most effective ways of stopping urban sprawl."

The program's supporters say that Ms. Grelick is just attacking farmland preservation any way she can.

"She's against the program. Period," said Kindel, the biggest backer of farmland preservation.

Both Ms. Grelick and Council Member Jane S. Woodward voted against borrowing the $300,000.

"I support this farmland preservation program," Ms. Woodward said. "But there's got to be a better way to finance it. My objections are purely financial."

Adding to the controversy among town officials is that the program has a $47,000 shortfall -- at least on the books.

A recent audit said that the money the town earlier gave to the program shouldn't be used for administrative costs. The town paid $47,000 for services such as surveying and title research, which were necessary before it could buy the development rights.

"This isn't something we negligently spent," said Jason Engle in the town's planning department. "This comes down to an interpretation of a resolution."

The town's financial director, town attorney, the planning department and the Western New York Land Conservancy will meet by the end of the month to decide how to handle the deficit.

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