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Sharpe kept the faith as Amherst grew

Amherst was around for a long time before Jack Sharpe got there. It just looked different by the time he left.

Sharpe, the former town supervisor who died last week in Florida, guided Erie County's most populous suburb during one of the most significant periods in its history, the high-growth years of 1976 to 1990.

In fact, the word "growth" might be the one most associated with Sharpe, and with reason: He couldn't get enough.

"Growth in Amherst is positive," he said in 1988, sounding a bit like Gordon Gekko in "Wall Street."

Dick Dawson, a retired Buffalo News reporter who covered Amherst for all of Sharpe's 14 years in office, said there was never any doubt that Sharpe wanted to see more residential and business development.

"He was certainly on that side of the fence. . . . He believed that Amherst should grow," Dawson said.

Longtime Amherst Council Member Bill Kindel, who served with Sharpe and fought with him over preserving green space, put it a different way: "Not many trees survived his gaze."

But it would be wrong to say that Sharpe alone was responsible -- good and bad -- for the Amherst that exists today. Dawson said Amherst was on the highway to hellacious development when the University at Buffalo came to town, long before Sharpe won the first of five elections.

"Everything that came after the university came by necessity," Dawson said. "It was a major university in what had been a small town. I don't think you could put the university in Clarence or in Orchard Park or Hamburg or Colden without essentially the same thing happening. The path was chosen for him."

Growth was a big reason Sharpe was one of the earliest and most fervent supporters of Metro Rail and was bitterly disappointed when the project ended at the town line. He wanted the original plan, which called for three stops in Amherst. He didn't like it referred to as "the extension"; he preferred "the completion."

When he delivered his state of the town address in 1979, he could proudly say that two major industrial parks were in the works, residential building continued in Ransom Oaks and Audubon, the Marriott Hotel was about to begin construction, and the planned expansion of the Lockport Expressway -- I-990 -- was a "go." Sharpe lived long enough to see all of those projects change the face of the town and the region.

He also saw some of the problems with development in Amherst come to light, notably the revelation that foundations of homes in neighborhoods such as Ransom Oaks and Audubon were crumbling.

Darlene Torbenson, who has been a spokeswoman for the owners of sinking homes, said Sharpe had a small role in that issue. She noted that a 1972 soil survey showed that soil in parts of northeast Amherst had "severe limitations," but Sharpe never wavered in his devotion to development in that part of town and in leading the town in that direction.

Much of the reason was that the town was required by federal officials to invest more than $100 million in a sewer plant, and development was needed to make it worth the cost.

"If you're going to have this kind of project, you don't expect to just have a few apartments," Torbenson said.

In the mid-1970s, it was widely believed that Amherst's population would have more than doubled by now.

Although that growth never came, Sharpe never apologized for his vision and never expressed a second thought.

"Jack believed in what he was doing," Dawson said. "He really had the good of the town at heart."

e-mail: bandriatch@buffnews.com

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