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Tough choices in Clarence on tax base, development

Clarence’s school problems have a lot to do with budgeting and spending.

But they may also have something to do with Wegmans and Walmart.

While much of the heated debate over the last month has revolved around teacher pay and music programs, some say the true cause of the crisis goes far beyond the schools.

Clarence’s policy of limiting growth and preserving green space is popular with residents who don’t want to see their rural community turn into another Amherst.

But that same strategy comes with a price – a tax base that could stagnate without new growth as school costs rise by more and more each year.

“They have to decide if they want to be a rural school district and budget like that,” said Dennis M. Penman, a local homebuilder. “They’re trying to act like Williamsville, and you can’t have it both ways.”

Unless, of course, you can rely on the taxes of the Williamsville Central School District, which encompasses most of Amherst, part of Cheektowaga and even part of Clarence.

Clarence schools do not rely on a similar tax base, for a number of reasons.

Most of the big-box commercial stores on Transit Road in the Town of Clarence pay their taxes to the Williamsville school district.

Last year, for instance, nearly $4 million in assessed commercial value was added to the town tax rolls, but $3 million went to the Williamsville district.

Still more of the developable area has no sewer service, making it harder to build there.

But developers have long said the town itself is seen as the biggest impediment to building there.

After decades of watching Amherst sprawl its way to prosperity – and traffic congestion – Clarence leaders in the last decade have tried to halt the pace of building in their town.

Several moratoriums have been discussed or enacted to control growth, including one on subdivisions and another last year on apartments.

High profile projects such as Wegmans – which wanted to move across Transit Road from Amherst to Clarence – have also been rejected by the board.

“We are going to send a message that we don’t welcome development,” former supervisor Kathleen Hallock said in 2001. “The doors are not open. The welcome sign is not out.”

The town has done more than take a hard look at proposed projects, though.

It has embarked on an aggressive “Greenprint” plan to preserve farmland “forever” by buying up old farms or sites that would otherwise be ripe for development.

Clarence has spent more than $6.8 million to buy property or development rights from local farm owners who want to see their lands stay rural after they are gone.

That’s music to the ears of people like Donna Wanamaker, who moved here three decades ago when Clarence was a much different place.

“You wouldn’t believe it,” Wanamaker said. “It was nothing. The cornfield was behind us, the cows were hanging over the fence and they took the horses up the road.”

But as Erie County’s population spread outward, it didn’t stay that way for long.

“Now you can’t even get your car out of the street because there is so much darn traffic,” she said.

Like many seniors in town, Wanamaker voted against the school budget.

She said the school issue is part of a larger divergence among town residents over the taxes and services – a divide that has been building for years among older and younger families.

“They expect everything,” she said of the young families. “If they want all that extra stuff, pay for it – sports, dancing, all that stuff.”

Parents like Julie Virag are more than willing to do just that.

The mother of four was drawn to Clarence for the low taxes, but she’s happy to pay a little more for services like good schools and lush parks.

“Unfortunately, no one wants to see their taxes raised, but in order to keep the services, we do need to contribute,” she said.

Watching her kids run through Clarence Town Park last week, she said the schools need to remain the draw that they have been for the last decade.

“People will say, OK, Clarence isn’t the school that it used to be, so we’re not going to move there,” she said.

Even Wanamaker’s husband, Henry Becker, has sympathy for the young families.

“You can’t be such a stick in the mud,” he said. “Everyone was young once, and we didn’t agree with the old farts. Well, we’re the old farts now.”

People on both sides of the issue point their fingers at district officials for not foreseeing the funding problems they have encountered.

Michele Beiter lamented the district’s practice of using reserve funds instead of asking for modest tax increases each year.

“You know what Williamsville has?” she asked. “A big fat pile of money, because they asked 2 percent, 2 percent, 2 percent. Under previous administrations, that didn’t happen for us.”

Developers, though, say the town has not made things easy for the schools, and the controversy should be framed in a larger context.

“Those same people who were against all development, who stopped the projects, are the same people that can’t figure out where to get enough money to run the school,” said Penman, executive vice president of Ciminelli Development.

Focusing only on school finances without regard for town policy is tantamount to “treating the symptom, not the disease,” developer Paul F. Ciminelli said.

He added that Clarence should be in even better shape because it does not have to underwrite a police force or sewer service in its town.

“Clarence to me is the case study, and it’s the ultimate irony because people say, with the income, you wouldn’t think this would happen in Clarence,” Ciminelli said. “A lot of town boards are doing injustices to their towns. When they say, ‘We’re not going to have this project,’ they’re leaving money on the table.”

Clarence Supervisor David C. Hartzell Jr. declined repeated requests to comment for this article.

But Community Development Director James B. Callahan said the developers’ comments were typical of those looking to build.

Town figures show that single family building permits plummeted in the decade since the town began to shift in the direction of growth control.

But Callahan pointed out that because thousands of pending home plans were grandfathered in after the moratoriums, significant growth still occurred.

Census figures confirm that Clarence was a boomtown over the last decade, gaining 4,500 residents, an increase of 17.4 percent.

Callahan added that the those who build new homes in Clarence pay more than those in other communities because the average new home is worth $325,000.

“We’ve been saying for years, I don’t know how people can afford to live out here,” he said.

Town figures show commercial activity, though, has not rebounded since the recession hit.

Ciminelli said the town needs to take a more open approach to growth to secure the viability of its schools.

“You need smart growth, you need to expand the tax base for the residents of the town going forward,” he said. “It can’t be these growth, no-growth fights.”

Callahan agreed, but said the solution is not that simple.

“I always look at the town next door,” he said of Amherst. “If that theory is correct, that taxes should always be lower as you build more, then their taxes should be a lot lower than ours. Guess what? They’re a lot higher.”