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Amherst may lose rare green space with country club redevelopment

The owners of one of the last privately owned green spaces in the Town of Amherst – the Westwood Country Club – say they want to develop it as a mixed-use project.

Mensch Capital Partners LLC, an investor group that bought the 68-year-old country club from its members in 2012, informally approached the town Planning Board two weeks ago with the idea.

No formal plans have been submitted to the town, and Planning Director Rick Gillert said he doesn’t expect anything to be filed until at least January.

He declined to elaborate on the nature of the talks or the concepts, noting that details could change significantly before anything is submitted. However, options would likely include some combination of office space, hotel, retail and housing, some of which may require rezoning by the town. The property is now zoned as a community facility.

“We’ve had informal discussions with them, but nothing that I could really discuss as a proposal,” he said.

Meanwhile, the investor group began conducting soil tests “to understand the constraints of a site,” said Andrew J. Shaevel, the managing partner of the group.

“We’re evaluating our options,” Shaevel said. “We’re doing what we have to do to make good informed decisions.”

The development talks follow the collapse early this year of negotiations for a land swap between the Mench Partners and the Town of Amherst – the 170-acre Westwood property in exchange for 170 acres of the 213-acre town-owned Audubon Golf Course.

Mensch felt the Audubon property – located between Millersport Highway, North Forest Road and Maple Road, and near University at Buffalo’s North Campus – was more suited to redevelopment than Westwood, which is sandwiched between North Forest and Maple roads and Sheridan Drive.

Amherst officials rejected that proposal, which they said wasn’t a fair swap because the land is valued differently, and further talks went nowhere.

At Westwood, speculation about the ultimate intentions of the club’s new owners began the moment they bought it for $2.5 million, with many observers expecting they would ultimately turn to commercial or residential development of the site rather than keeping it as a golf course.

However, the country club will remain open for the coming golf season.

Besides Shaevel and Paul J. Kolkmeyer, both of Essjay Partners LLC, the group includes Paul Ciminelli, CEO of Ciminelli Real Estate, and Mark and Dan Hamister, of Hamister Group.

Opportunities for large-scale development in Amherst are becoming fewer, as there are few large parcels available that aren’t set aside for parkland or wetlands. So developers are eager for any opening they can find. For example, the former Evergreen Golf Course on Tonawanda Creek Road is now a Marrano/Marc Equity housing development called Evergeen Landing.

That’s what worries Amherst Town Supervisor Barry Weinstein.

“Personally, I’m very concerned about the loss of a golf course, and the loss of open space and the loss of recreational area,” he said, although he would not take a position on the proposed development. However, he said, “I’m not surprised, based upon previous discussions.”

But there’s no guarantee the group can get the town to go along with developing Westwood. Heavy opposition by area residents, particularly in the Fairways neighborhood, derailed Benderson Development Co.’s efforts to build on the former gun club property along Maple Road, and opponents had already started speaking out against the land swap when that was pending.

Also, Weinstein and the Town Board took heat during the recent election over their approval for prior hotel developments on Main Street in Amherst and Snyder.

“They can come to the Town Board just like anybody else, and if it fits with the master plan, I would think the Town Board would consider rezoning it,” said Council Member Steven Sanders. But, he said, “They probably would be held to a slightly harder test, just because of the factors in that neighborhood. I imagine that we would look at this under a microscope, making sure everything is clean.”

Originally founded in 1945 with 200 members, Westwood grew and thrived for decades but fell into decline as its original purpose – a club for Jewish people who were not allowed to join other existing organizations – was no longer necessary. Membership plunged, finances deteriorated and debts mounted, forcing the club to put itself up for sale or be closed.