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Shawnee Landing pits 'us' against 'them' Residents' furious objection to development puts issues of race and class in the spotlight

Houses go up so fast in Wheatfield, even the town's Planning Board chairman says it's hard to keep track of the details for each project.

Yet one particular development, a 64-unit affordable-housing project called the Townhomes at Shawnee Landing, is getting a lot of attention. Neighbors have turned out by the hundreds in the past two weeks to complain, saying the schools will become too crowded and the traffic too congested.

Others think many of the neighbors have additional worries.

"It really makes you wonder," said Mike Riegel, vice president of Belmont Shelter Corp., which is developing the project. "There are numerous subdivisions being built in Wheatfield, all of them with more units than the townhouse units we're proposing. Yet none of those subdivisions seem to be getting this [kind of] resistance."

Riegel has been through this process enough times in the past 25 years to conclude that race and class are at the heart of the opposition -- a charge that residents vehemently dispute.

But an anonymous flier and thinly veiled references to race at a recent standing-room-only town meeting -- combined with a pro-development town supervisor's spur-of-the-moment call for a three-week building moratorium -- make this anything but a typical development fight.

Some residents say they had no idea multiple-unit housing was being built at the site on Klemer Road, just around the corner from homes selling for a quarter-million dollars.

Others say they knew about the project but had been led to believe it was designed for senior citizens, not for low-income families.

Even Town Supervisor Timothy Demler says he was unaware until this month that the project was intended for affordable family housing, rather than senior housing.

But documents filed by the developers over the past three years consistently described the project that way.

And Demler sent a letter to one of the developers in January 2004.

"We are pleased and very supportive of your plans to provide much-needed senior and starter income housing for the residents of Wheatfield and Niagara County," Demler's letter states.

Demler says it's not his job as supervisor to stay on top of the details of all the developments in town. That's up to the Planning Board. Still, plenty of residents say they feel the supervisor failed them.

"I think this woke up a lot of residents to look at our officials and say, 'How can we trust them?' " said resident Chris Carbone.

>An evolving church

Several years ago, the congregation of Payne Avenue Christian Church in North Tonawanda was shrinking to a critical point. Many members were moving out of the city, to places such as Wheatfield.

Church leaders decided that to survive, they needed to follow their members.

Six years ago, the church bought 20 acres of land on Shawnee Road in Wheatfield. Over the next two years, plans evolved for building a church and a senior housing development there, in partnership with Belmont Shelter and Buffalo businessman Paul Granville. The church changed its name to The Church at Shawnee Landing.

In late 2003, officials from the state Division of Housing and Community Renewal told the church that, with other senior projects in the works in Wheatfield, the chances of getting money for another such project were slim.

The developers decided to shift gears and create "affordable housing for families," as well as seniors, according to church leaders.

In January 2004, Rep. Thomas M. Reynolds, R-Clarence, announced a $447,000 grant from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development for the $9.2 million project, which officials said would feature senior housing in the first phase, then construction of a new church and affordable family housing in the second phase.

Church officials say that, when they filed an application with the town's Planning Board for site plan approval in February 2004, they listed the project as "affordable housing."

A few months later, the Town Board approved a rezoning of the lot that will allow multiple-unit housing. A couple of dozen people attended the meeting, and some met privately with Riegel to get answers about the project. The Town Board unanimously approved the rezoning.

The project moved along, getting all the necessary approvals from local, state and federal officials -- with virtually no resident concern. Construction began in early November.

Soon, anonymous fliers about the project were distributed, some of them asking: "Did you know this project will bring people of all colors into our neighborhood, which would lower our property values and be beneath the high standard of living that we are trying to preserve?"

Hundreds of residents have rallied in the past few weeks to voice their opposition to the project. Nearly all deny any racial concerns.

Some say they feel they were duped. They would have had no problem with a senior development, they say, but a low-income housing complex is a different story.

"We all know what kind of people we're talking about," resident Jim Adams told the Town Board. "I work awfully hard for my money, and I don't want this across the street. It belongs in the city."

>Screening process

The Townhomes at Shawnee Landing will feature a community center along with 10 buildings -- a total of 64 housing units. Rents for the one- to four-bedroom units will range from $400 to $575 a month, plus utilities, according to Riegel.

Tenants will have to go through a criminal background check, a credit check and a landlord reference check. Tenants' income must be at or below 60 percent of the median household income for the region. Their rent will not be subsidized.

"Because of the fact people have to afford these rents, your typical person on public assistance is going be eliminated," Riegel said.

"This is for the working poor, [such as] a teacher's aide or a security guard -- folks who have the ability to pay. I envision the majority of these folks will have jobs with two, maybe three, children. They need this affordable rent to stay in their hometown."

Carbone and Stephen Kishel are among the residents who have hired an attorney to look into the Shawnee Landing project and, they say, development in general in Wheatfield.

Kishel says that, while there are some concerns related to low-income housing, the main concerns are those that would come with a development of any sort, primarily crowded schools and increased traffic.

Opponents of the development are scheduled to meet at 7 p.m. today in the Adams Volunteer Fire Hall on Nash Road to discuss their strategy.

The Niagara-Wheatfield School District already has redistricted once in the past few years, residents point out.

And traffic keeps getting worse. Kishel says that since he moved to Wheatfield five years ago, his commute to downtown Buffalo has become 20 minutes longer.

"I guess I would have an issue with any housing at this point," he said. "Klemer Road is a one-and-a-half-car road. We're going to put in a number of homes, and I don't know if that area can accommodate that kind of traffic."

e-mail: mpasciak@buffnews.com

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