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Bid on height limitation for new buildings defeated in Amherst

An attempt by an Amherst council member to place a temporary halt to all six-story building construction in Amherst was soundly defeated, but not before some heated debate and audience participation on the topic at Monday night's board meeting.

Council Member Mark Manna put forth a resolution calling for the town to place a moratorium on the approval of any projects greater than 50 feet in height, though it was unlikely to gain board support.

“I think it's a travesty if there's no discussion of this issue, and quite frankly, an insult to the residents here today,” he said. “We should all go on record as to how we feel about this issue.”The town currently permits commercial structures as high as six stories or 65 feet.

But neighborhood backlash has been fierce ever since two things happened: Carl Paladino's Ellicott Development erected a six-story mixed-use building at Main Street and South Forest Road, and Iskalo Development proposed a six-story Hyatt Place hotel a half mile away behind the Lord Amherst Hotel on Main Street.

Several residents spoke out against the Iskalo project and in favor of Manna's resolution Monday night.

“Enough already,” said hotel opponent Michele Marconi. “A moratorium on six-story buildings is in order, please.”

Council Member Barbara Nuchereno offered to second Manna's resolution for discussion purposes, but called his resolution a “knee-jerk reaction” that may unfairly hurt other commercial projects in the pipeline.

She also responded to accusations that the town was “fast tracking” the Iskalo project. “I don't know where this conspiracy theory has come from,” she said. “I'm on the board. I've never heard of any fast tracking.”

Manna noted that the entire board supported the creation of a special committee to review building height limits and design standards that are sensitive to surrounding neighborhoods. Given that fact, he said, the board should wait for the committee to issue its recommendations before approving any taller building projects.

“We all agree on some level that we need to look at what the development plans were to see if it really fits in with what our vision of a smart growth future is,” he said.

But other council members, and the town attorney, pointed out that the Town Board has no authority to direct the actions of the Planning Board or the Zoning Board of Appeals. A moratorium would be “a drastic measure” that would not give residents opposed to the Hyatt Place project any relief, they said.

“I'm just disappointed in this resolution because I think, once again, Council Member Manna is giving false hope to the residents, putting forth this proposal, suggesting that this is somehow going to solve their concerns related to this one, specific project,” said Council Member Steven Sanders. “And in reality, there's no way that it can.“The time that it would take for this moratorium to go into law would be months – for the town attorney to write it, to set the public hearing, to hold the public hearing and vote on the matter. It would take months, and by then, the site plan would already be approved. So this would again be closing the gate after the horse has already run out.”

Manna responded, “If we're going to fast track something, let's fast track something on behalf of the residents. We can do it. We should do it. It's sad that what I'm hearing is they won't do it.”

Council Member Guy Marlette, who is chairing the committee looking into “context-sensitive” building height limitations and design standards, reiterated the limits of the Town Board's power and the plans for the Commercial and Residential District Review Committee going forward.“Some say it's after the fact; It certainly is,” Marlette said. “I can't change what's already happened. But we can still work toward changing what can happen in the future.”

In related news, the board has received a total of 334 form letters (an additional 10 since the board's last meeting) in opposition to the Hyatt Place hotel project. The letters were referred to the Zoning Board of Appeals and the Amherst Industrial Development Agency.

The Zoning Board will consider nine zoning variance requests from Iskalo Development for the Hyatt Place project at tonight's meeting at 7 p.m. in the council chambers.

For more news from Monday night's Amherst Town Board meeting, please see the live blog posted under Amherst community news at