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ECC student housing project approved; Amherst Town Board OKs $18 million, three-story complex on Youngs Road

The first major student housing development devoted to Erie Community College students got the green light to proceed Monday from the Amherst Town Board.

Coupled with other major developments on and around the North Campus, ECC is positioning itself as a bigger player on the Amherst college scene.

Zaepfel Development intends to open an $18 million, three-story student housing complex on Youngs Road across the street from ECC North next year. The 115-unit, private development with roughly 400 beds would be the first dedicated to serving ECC North, which is the busiest of the college's three campuses.

"The student housing fits in very nicely with a rejuvenation of the North Campus," said Supervisor Barry Weinstein, referring to controversial plans for a new $30 million academic building and the new YMCA building going up adjacent to the North Campus.

The Town Board voted 5-1 to lift certain rezoning conditions that would have impeded the developer's plans to build the three-story complex.

The 10-acre parcel at 205 Young Road was once part of a larger parcel that was rezoned in 1985 as multifamily residential housing back when the developer had plans to put lower-density condominiums on the site.

At the time, the developer agreed to a two-story building limit. But lawyers from the Damon Morey law firm representing Zaepfel Development said that by allowing the developer to build a three-story project, the residents living in single-family homes on Lyndhurst Road would be afforded a greater buffer area of green space.

A number of Lyndhurst residents, whose homes would border the property on the north side, expressed concern about the high-density nature of the development, but withdrew their protests after meeting with the developer and town officials and extracting a promise to give residents a bigger buffer from the student housing building and its expansive parking lot.

Lyndhurst resident Vance Conway, a former critic of the project, told the board on Monday that while residents are "still not terribly pleased" about the Zaepfel project, "we have come to an amicable agreement with the developer."

Jeffery Palumbo, the lawyer representing Zaepfel, said the developer has increased the green buffer area from 56 feet to 77 feet, including a 6-to-8 foot high berm, landscaping and a split-rail fence to better obscure the project from homeowners' properties.

Council Member Guy Marlette said he appreciated the spirit of compromise shown by all parties, even though he ultimately voted against the final board resolution because he opposes the idea of private, off-campus student housing.

The project site plan must still be vetted and approved by the town's Planning Board.

John Ball, president of RE Silverstone Partners, a student housing consulting and management firm, stated at a prior Town Board meeting that a majority of the students who attend Niagara County Community College and other community colleges in the region hail from Erie County.

But they don't attend ECC because ECC doesn't offer the same kind of dedicated student housing that other community college campuses do. If this Zaepfel Development project moves forward, Ball said, more of these students would return to Erie County.

He also said market studies have shown that if this student housing is constructed and opened by fall 2012, as planned, it will quickly reach full occupancy and have a waiting list.

Weinstein had previously stated that he wanted the developer to promise not to seek public tax breaks for his development, a promise that Zaepfel Development was unwilling to make.

While the developer did not budge on that request, representatives did reach agreement with town officials regarding new conditions that would:

Strengthen the project's "zero tolerance policy" regarding alcohol and drugs on site, through an official agreement with the town.

Allow ECC's own security to enter the private housing development to address any safety emergencies.

Create a student housing security plan that would require approval from both the supervisor and the Amherst police chief, and limit town liability if a town police officer is injured while doing security work for the student housing project.

Weinstein said he will continue to vocally oppose any tax breaks for the project. Aside from that, he said, he's happy to see ECC North's growth, despite opposition from some elected officials who have long advocated for the consolidation of ECC's three campuses downtown.