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With time running out, Lancaster's much debated and hard-fought "big box" strip mall was approved Monday by the Town Board, clearing the way for a new battle -- in court.

The board voted unanimously to grant a rezoning needed for the nearly 300,000-square-foot project at Transit Road and William Street.

The board had been split 3-2 over the development, but at the last minute stitched together a unanimous vote by agreeing to change the land back to its current residential zoning if a site plan isn't approved within a year.

Board members said they were torn between deciding whether the benefits of the project -- more tax revenue, jobs and more convenient shopping -- outweighed the problems with congestion and hardships for adjacent neighbors.

"I looked at the good, the bad and ugly," said Deputy Supervisor Mark A. Montour. "I feel in my heart what I'm doing is in the best interest of the town."

Board members said they hoped to protect adjacent neighbors in the Northwoods Townhomes subdivision by providing a 105-foot buffer and adding other requirements to keep noise, lighting and other headaches at bay for homeowners.

But the neighbors were unimpressed.

"We'll end up in court," said George Ciancio, head of the Citizens Against Retail Sprawl, founded by Northwoods residents.

The fight over developer Joe Cipolla's project was one of Lancaster's nastiest, pitting officials against residents who feared the town's pastoral heritage was being traded away for a clutter of strip malls.

Opponents waged a bruising battle against Supervisor Robert H. Giza, who survived with only about 600 votes to spare against a political newcomer in November's elections.

Two councilmen on the ballot weren't as lucky as Giza. Monday's meeting was the last for board members Neil Connelly and William Maryniewski.

Monday's decision was not a surprise for opponents. A majority of the board clearly favored the project by influential developer Cipolla. And the board had to act fast. Otherwise, the winners of November's elections -- Rick Zarbo and Georgette Pelletterie -- might kill the development after taking office Jan. 1.

The vote by the board came shortly after it decided, along with the Planning Board, that all environmental concerns had been adequately dealt with by Cipolla.

The two boards, acting as the Municipal Review Committee, needed to do so before the council could grant the rezoning Cipolla needs to build his project.

But opponents were particularly unhappy with how quickly town officials acted in making their final two decisions.

Ciancio said officials were legally obligated to review all the materials and comments submitted during a 30-day public comment period. That period ended at noon Monday, and Town Clerk Robert Thill said Town Board members hadn't even seen much of the material until he delivered it shortly before the meeting.

He said the officials might be hard pressed to convince a judge they had given the material from the public comment period close scrutiny.

"You just handed a judge a first class reversal of your action," Thill warned the Town Board after Giza proposed issuing the project a clean bill of health.

Even the consultant hired by the board called for more time, saying additional information needed to be submitted.

"They ignored their own expert," Ciancio said.

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