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SANTILLO, HER RAPPORT WITH CONSTITUENTS INTACT, DEPARTS AS PROTECTOR AGAINST OVERDEVELOPMENT

When Amherst residents complained about development encroaching on their homes, Peggy Santillo spoke up for them.

When construction came at the expense of nature and open space, Santillo objected.

And when new houses and buildings flourished in Erie County's largest suburb, Santillo resisted.

But after eight years of serving as an Amherst council member, Santillo -- who is best-known among constituents for her strong stance against overdevelopment -- is stepping away from town government.

"To me, it's just an issue of well-planned and good development," said Santillo, who leaves office at the new year. "I'm not anti-development at all."

Of course, the numerous developers and fellow board members with whom she has tangled through the years probably would disagree.

Santillo knew little about Amherst government or politics until the late 1980s, when she and her neighbors lobbied town officials to stop an office park from being built near their homes.

She lost that fight, but the event turned her attention to politics.

Santillo, now 46, first ran for the Amherst Town Board in 1989 and lost. She then assembled a low-budget, grass-roots campaign in 1991 and was the top vote-getter for a seat on the traditionally Republican Town Board. She was the top vote-getter again when re-elected in 1995.

Besides trying to keep development in check, Santillo attached herself to issues that concern her the most.

She has been instrumental in improving Amherst's parks and playgrounds. She also has fought numerous environmental battles, from saving open space to reducing the use of pesticides to kill mosquitoes. She also has focused more attention on such issues as domestic violence, historic preservation and improvement of the status of women in society.

But as she sat in her cluttered Town Hall cubicle recently -- surrounded by photos, old newspaper clippings and stacks of papers -- Santillo pondered what she will miss most about her part-time job as an elected official.

"My late-night talks with the Town Hall maintenance crew," she said.

"When I first was elected, sometimes I would be in the office until 12:30 at night, and I developed this very interesting relationship with the maintenance staff. They were very kind to me and gave me little words of wisdom."

It's that relationship with the public that made Santillo popular with her constituents, said Council Member Daniel J. Ward, a fellow Democrat on the Town Board.

"She always had a very strong following among the ordinary citizens because she communicated well with them," Ward said. "And she wasn't a career politician, which gave her more credibility.

"She is a person who wasn't afraid to speak up. Peggy showed that if you had enough people believe in you, you could win an election without raising huge amounts of money."

Ward and others hope that Santillo, a special-education teacher at West Seneca East High School, will be back, maybe after a little hiatus.

But Santillo's not planning on it, at least not now.

She announced in May that she was not going to run for office again, because she wants to spend more time with her 16-year-old daughter, Jessica, a junior at Williamsville South High School.

Santillo also thinks that there is a shelf life for any politician.

And she considers her time up.

"I don't anticipate being back in town government," she said. "I always said I wanted to serve two terms and leave. That's what I'm doing."

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