In northwest Amherst, 1,200 acres of land could become a major factor in Town Board races this year.
The controversy over Nature View Park, about the size of the University at Buffalo North Campus, has become a magnet not only for nature lovers and neighbors, but for politicians as well.
A Town Hall rally this week to support keeping the park in its natural state drew about two dozen people, about one-third of them from the political arena.
Candidates who support keeping the park in the care of the Western New York Land Conservancy -- thus ensuring the land remains in its natural state -- vow to make the issue central to their campaigns.
"It should be a pivotal issue in the campaign if this town is truly committed to maintaining open space. Absolutely," said Paul Beyer, a Democratic candidate for Town Board running on minor-party lines.
But candidates who support the town's lawsuit to keep the park out of the Land Conservancy's care downplay the controversy surrounding the issue.
"We all agree that Amherst needs to preserve and expand green space for all kinds of purposes, active and passive recreation," said Supervisor Susan J. Grelick, a Democrat who is running for re-election. "We just have differing viewpoints on how to achieve this worthy goal."
In December 1999, the Town Board voted to take steps to ensure that the land be kept forever in its natural state. The board approved a contract with the Western New York Land Conservancy, granting an easement on the property and putting the land in the group's care. The board also agreed to pay the group a one-time fee of $69,000 for its services.
A month later, when a Republican majority took control of the board, the deal was rescinded.
"We had a contract with the Land Conservancy, and the new Republicans changed things," said Councilman Bill Kindel, who is running for supervisor. "They turned their back on nature, turned their back on the taxpayer.
Those who voted to back off on the deal say the town should retain control of land it owns.
"My feeling is, Nature View is a public property, acquired for public use," Grelick said. "The easement to a private organization for public property gives away public control. It sets a dangerous precedent."
Under the easement in Amherst, the town would retain ownership, but would have difficulty developing any active recreation -- such as ball fields and playgrounds -- on the land.
The Land Conservancy, along with Ward and Kindel, sued the town last year in an effort to get the town to honor its contract with the group. Last month, a State Supreme Court judge denied a request by the town to dismiss the case.
Grelick estimated the town has spent about $10,000 so far on attorney fees, though she said the town has not yet received a bill from Hodgson, Russ, Andrews, Woods & Goodyear, the firm representing the town in the case.
Nature lovers say the town is well on its way to spending more in legal fees than it would spend on the one-time fee to have the Conservancy monitor the land.
"Taxpayers will pay the bill for the town's foolhardiness," Beyer said.