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Housing development is hot issue in Marilla's Town Board primary

Two open seats on the Marilla Town Board have triggered a debate about whether to rezone open land for more housing.

"This is going to get hot and heavy. This is going to get good," said Democrat Richard Rose, one of six candidates running in Tuesday's primary.

Contenders for the four-year terms include a physical therapist who says she wants to preserve farmland, a retired farmer with 300 acres and plans for a golf course and a man who works as cashier and cook for a boss trying to get rezoning for a 50-unit senior citizen complex.

Joseph Lankes, 22, works at the Kwik Fill on Clinton Street. It is owned by Greg Willey, who has partnered with Leon Berner to build the senior housing project to be reviewed by the Planning Board before it goes to the Town Board.

Lankes dismisses those who question his perspective.

"I'm my own person. I'm doing this for the people," said Lankes, who has a bachelor's degree in criminal justice from Buffalo State College and has served on the Conservation Advisory Committee for three years.

Controversy about housing development in Marilla crested this summer about another development: 46 acres on Bullis Road rezoned from an agricultural district to allow for 18 houses.

Opposition mounted, as the board voted, 3-2, for the zoning change on land next to a working farm and a subdivision.

A month before the June vote, the Erie County planning office opposed the rezoning with a formal letter saying that the loss of farmland was at odds with a growth plan for Erie and Niagara counties.

Then, days before the vote, another letter arrived saying the county was rescinding its disapproval. There was no explanation for the change.

Four of the six candidates on the ballots Tuesday touted their distance from developers.

"I will represent the people of the Town of Marilla, not my own special interests," Rose wrote in a candidate questionnaire. "I have no connections, whatsoever, to developers or contractors."

Lankes and incumbent Daniel Handy are endorsed by the leaders of the Republican, Democratic and Conservative parties.

Handy cast one of the votes favoring the Bullis Road zoning change this summer.

"It met all the requirements of the comprehensive plan," he said.

The new subdivision is appropriate, he said, because it will be close to the hamlet of Marilla and it is next to another subdivision.

Handy is a retired farmer who owns 300 acres. While he said no land is for sale now, he has permits and plans to build a golf course if he can get financing.

As for the pending senior housing development, he said, "I know the Town of Marilla needs senior housing, but it's something that the Planning Board needs to look into . . . I believe in keeping Marilla as fiscally conservative as possible."

He has a bachelor's degree in agricultural economics from Cornell University and is finishing his first term on the board. He served on the Planning Board for 10 years, including time as chairman.

Candidates note that Marilla has one of the lowest town tax rates in Erie County, and they say they aim to protect it. Some worry that more development could bring higher taxes because extra services could be needed.

Details from questionnaires include:

* Democrat Rose, 63, is a high school graduate and retired tractor-trailer driver. He is president of Marilla's Democratic Club and the town Assessment Review Board.
* Democrat Deborah Lerner, 53, worked at Fisher-Price for 15 years before her data analyst job was eliminated last year. She is now a saleswoman with Batavia Enclosures, a maker of molded sheet metal. She has a bachelor's degree in geosciences from Buffalo State College. She has tried twice, in 2006 and 2007, for a seat on the Town Board. She is on the board of the organization Primary Challenge. "The purpose . . . is to draft, support and infuse new leaders into government who will be more responsive to voters," she said.

* Republican Elizabeth Ackerman, 45, has a master's degree in physical therapy from D'Youville College and works for the McGuire Group. "I want to ensure that the rural fiber and agricultural heritage of our town remains intact and that any development is done responsibly and is relevant to our town," she responded.

* Republican Donald Darrow, 71, is a high school graduate who is retired after 18 years with Xerox working on the "customer engineer team." He said this distinguishes him from other candidates: "No connection to any special interest, builders or developers." To him, the biggest issue in the town is: "To remove special interest and personal agenda from our town government."

e-mail: mkearns@buffnews.com

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