Western New York's Democratic state lawmakers are putting their muscle behind a request for $2 million in aid to Hickory Woods, the first piece of a multimillion-dollar relocation and cleanup plan.
Assembly leaders, at the urging of Assemblyman Brian M. Higgins, D-Buffalo, are seeking money that would help pay for remediation and redevelopment of the contaminated neighborhood.
The money, part of a $25 million pool of brownfields assistance proposed by Gov. George E. Pataki, would not be used to finance a buyout and relocation of residents.
"No region of New York State can make a more compelling argument for a piece of that money," said Higgins, who represents the Hickory Woods neighborhood.
Republicans in the State Senate are skeptical, suggesting that the Hickory Woods proposal might not qualify under the new brownfields program's "merit-based" guidelines.
"It's something we can look at," said State Sen. Dale M. Volker, R-Depew, "but it doesn't seem to fit into that program."
The state money, if approved, could be coupled with more than $5 million in aid that City Hall is seeking from federal sources. That money, if approved, would be used to buy out homeowners.
Higgins said that he presented his proposal to the state delegation Monday and that he expects all the Assembly Democrats to sign a letter of support to Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, D-Manhattan.
As part of his search for financial assistance, Mayor Anthony M. Masiello spoke Tuesday with Assembly Majority Leader Paul A. Tokasz, D-Cheektowaga. Tokasz endorsed Higgins' request and promised to look for other sources of state funding.
"The mayor and I have talked about trying to put together a pot of money to help move the situation toward a solution," Tokasz said.
The state also is being asked to join City Hall in legal action against a previous landowner. Higgins has asked the state attorney general's office to sue LTV Steel Corp. for the costs associated with cleaning up the neighborhood and the former steel plant next door.
LTV owned part of Hickory Woods before selling it to the city, and according to the city's lawsuit, the company is responsible for much of the contamination there.
Barbra A. Kavanaugh, head of the attorney general's Buffalo office, said she is aware of the Hickory Woods situation but has not yet received Higgins' request. Any new litigation would be filed while LTV is under Bankruptcy Court protection.
If state lawmakers set aside money for Hickory Woods, it could become the first assistance provided to Buffalo since Masiello and the Common Council promised to buy out homeowners.
An even bigger chunk of money could result from Masiello's request for help from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the agency that helped subsidize the Hickory Woods development. His request has the backing of Rep. Jack F. Quinn, R-Hamburg.
City Hall officials declined to comment on how much money might be requested of HUD, but sources close to the situation said it could be as much as $50,000 per house, or more than $5 million.
Masiello's request for federal aid is based, in large part, on the belief that the homes in Hickory Woods, which have plummeted in value, are now distressed properties contributing to blight in the neighborhood.
Masiello, in a letter to HUD, said the city is considering a plan that would compensate homeowners who want to leave the neighborhood as well as those who want to stay.
The city, according to the letter, is considering a buyback plan that would compensate homeowners who want to leave for their "actual out-of-pocket investment in the home."
In a new development, Masiello said he also intends to address the concerns of renters in the Hickory Woods neighborhood but would not offer details about how.
State lawmakers are confident that they can find money for the cleanup and redevelopment of Hickory Woods but are skeptical about finding funds for a buyout of residents.
Higgins and Tokasz said the obstacles are state law and a concern about the legal precedent a homeowner buyout could set for other contaminated areas across the state.
"We can certainly provide money for remediation and redevelopment," Higgins said.
Homeowners, while pleased with the city's promise of help, are concerned that it could take months before a plan is worked out by the city, state and federal governments.
"We'd like something in place as soon as possible," said Richard J. Lippes, an attorney for the homeowners, "but we have to be realistic."