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Political hostility flares over Wal-Mart Town of Lockport approaching decision

As decision time approaches on the Wal-Mart supercenter project, a previously civil process, with most of the barbs from opponents directed only toward Wal-Mart, has been replaced with open political hostility.

John J. Ottaviano, attorney for the anti-supercenter Citizens for Smart Growth, said Wednesday, during the third installment of a Zoning Board of Appeals public hearing on the project, that a town official had told him he was no longer welcome in Town Hall.

Reached by telephone after the meeting, Supervisor Marc R. Smith said he was the person who told Ottaviano to butt out. Smith accused Ottaviano, who is also the City of Lockport's corporation counsel, of disregarding his municipal responsibilities in "pursuit of the almighty dollar."

Meanwhile, the Zoning Board scheduled a continuation of the public hearing for 11 a.m. Jan. 11 in Town Hall, with Chairman Paul Siejak saying the board might vote on Wal-Mart's variance requests then. He said the board can't do so until the Planning Board finishes work on the project's final environmental impact statement. The Planning Board may do so as soon as its meeting at 3 p.m. today.

Wednesday, residents who live near the mall attacked Smith, who during the Nov. 29 Zoning Board meeting spoke in favor of some of the 40 variances Wal-Mart is seeking. But Siejak said, "I feel no political pressure."

Jim Garlock of Shimer Drive noted that when Smith was a councilman in 2004, he voted in favor of zoning ordinance amendments which took the decision on "big box" stores away from the elected Town Board and gave it to the appointed Planning Board.

Smith said he hasn't changed his position. "I feel I have the same right as any resident of this town to be heard ... when I feel a group is being overly vocal to the detriment of the rest of the town," he said. "Mitigating plans have been put in place. I feel it's a good project."

Ottaviano told the board, "Despite being told by certain individuals that my presence is no longer welcome here in Town Hall, I have sworn an oath to represent my clients to the best of my ability."

However, Ottaviano said he has recruited David J. Seeger, a Buffalo attorney who specializes in environmental issues, to represent Citizens for Smart Growth.

Seeger has represented anti-Wal-Mart groups in Hamburg, Lancaster and Niagara Falls. He has also represented Residents for Responsible Government, the Lewiston-Porter citizens' group opposing expansion of the CWM Chemical Services landfill; a group of Amherst residents fighting a developer over wetlands off Wehrle Drive; and the Town of Cheektowaga in its drive to prevent Buffalo Crushed Stone from expanding its quarry operations.

"He's not going to be as cordial as I have been. The gloves are off," Ottaviano said.

Smith charged, "Let's get down to brass tacks. John Ottaviano is being funded by Tops Friendly Markets. John Ottaviano is the one who cannot separate his role as a municipal attorney who must work with other communities from his pursuit of the almighty dollar. . . . I have no sympathy for John Ottaviano. He's correct. He's not welcome in the town."

Mayor Michael W. Tucker called Smith's comments "inappropriate. I wouldn't attack anybody in his administration."

He said Smith raised the issue of Ottaviano's Wal-Mart activities at a meeting on other matters in City Hall last week, and Tucker then discussed it with Ottaviano.

"I understand it could cause a problem between the city and the town," Tucker said. "I did not tell John to resign [from representing the residents] or to go find another attorney. What he does on his own time is his business."

As for the Tops issue, Ottaviano said, "I have attorney-client privilege. I can't say who is funding me." Neither Margaret "Micki" Magno, a leader of the residents' group, nor a Tops spokesman could be reached Wednesday night.

Wal-Mart's project would include a supermarket in addition to its normal discount store. Tops has a large store a quarter-mile away from the Lockport Mall at South Transit Road and Shimer Drive, most of which Wal-Mart plans to demolish to build its supercenter.

Seeger told the Zoning Board that Wal-Mart's variance requests should be granted "only if there is dollars and cents evidence that the applicant is unable to earn a return on his investment without the variance."

As Seeger cited chapter and verse from the town's own ordinances, town officials got their backs up. "You're giving an educational seminar to a group of people who understand the process," Siejak said.

"I'll indicate to the Zoning Board I'll advise them what the law is," Town Attorney Daniel E. Seaman said.

"Be nice. I represent the people who pay the taxes," Seeger replied.

e-mail: tprohaska@buffnews.com

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