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'End run' around master plan charged

The Amherst Town Board made history early this month by adopting a master plan for the first time in decades.

But now, the Amherst Zoning Board of Appeals has issued a ruling that undermines the new master plan and the Town Board, critics said Wednesday.

The five-member appeals panel, meeting Tuesday evening, approved a measure that will allow Natale Builders to demolish two single-family homes in the 5500 block of Sheridan Drive and put up an office building -- despite the fact that the town's new master plan lists the area as residential.

A similar plan to erect an office building was turned down last April by Town Board members in a 4-3 vote, critics pointed out.

"We were trying to stop it, and they just did an end run around us," Council Member Daniel J. Ward said.

"To me that does not sound like what the Zoning Board is supposed to do. It seemed to me that it was illegal," he said.

The law allows owners who claim a hardship to seek a variance from their zoning classification -- permission to use the property for a nonconforming purpose.

In this case, owners Susan Grasso and Raymond Lembke are arguing their properties have lost as much as half their value because of traffic on Sheridan.

Attorney Jeffrey D. Palumbo, who represents Grasso and Lembke, said that they presented appraisals to back up their contention and that the Zoning Board of Appeals agreed to grant the variances in a hearing last year.

However, neighbors then filed suit in State Supreme Court, seeking to block the variances, and the matter was sent back to the Zoning Board for a statement of the facts that led to Tuesday's decision.

Palumbo said he was confident the court will uphold the variances. He accused Ward and other critics of trying to "stir up controversy."

But others are less certain, including the Zoning Board's expert on the town code, Assistant Building Commissioner Robert F. Danni.

"The petitioners really did not establish sufficient grounds for a use variance," Danni said.

And Michael Townsend, who heads a group of area residents who are suing the owners of the two houses, agreed, saying there was little evidence to support the Zoning Board's decision.

Then there is the matter of a group home for people with cerebral palsy at 5500 Sheridan, which will be surrounded by nonresidential properties if the variance is granted, critics say.


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