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Hotel height fight moves from Amherst to Tonawanda with proposed Holiday Inn Express

Tonawanda residents were excited two years ago when plans were announced for a hotel on a blighted stretch of Niagara Falls Boulevard.

But that excitement waned as they learned that, at four stories and 50 feet tall, the Holiday Inn Express would be more than twice as tall as the average home behind it.

“It’s like a huge wall going up that will oversee our backyards,” said Nadine Ocasio of Dexter Terrace, which runs parallel to Niagara Falls Boulevard one block to its west. “We don’t know who’s staying in the hotel, but they have views into both our homes and our backyards.”

The residents also oppose a planned entrance and exit for vehicles on Forbes Avenue, which they fear will bring more traffic west into their neighborhood because there’s no light at the intersection of Forbes and Niagara Falls Boulevard.

“There are days you cannot make a left onto the boulevard without a light,” Ocasio said. “It’s going to increase traffic and my concern is very young boys who play in the street there.”

The controversy has erupted a little more than a year after residents of a Snyder neighborhood lost their fight against the six-story Hyatt Place Hotel on Main Street, near the Youngmann Highway. Those neighbors had argued that the hotel violated a height restriction placed on the property in 1969. But a panel of judges rejected their appeal in February 2014, pushing the project forward and closer to completion.

Meanwhile, the shallow Town of Tonawanda parcel, at 208 feet deep, continues to deteriorate.

There’s the former Boulevard Gardens motel, closed for at least 25 years, and three vacant single-family homes surrounded by a chain-link fence.

“It’s a mess,” said Councilman John A. Bargnesi Jr. “It definitely needs to be redeveloped.”

Residents of the Parkview area of Tonawanda, near Ellicott Creek Park, aren’t talking about a lawsuit and said they don’t want to stand in the way of progress.

In fact, they said they welcome the project being developed by Chan Patel, under the name Darien Lake Buffalo, LLC. They just want Patel to shorten the height of the 84-room hotel by expanding its footprint to the south, to a John & Mary’s Restaurant at the corner of Niagara Falls Boulevard and Thistle Avenue. They say he has the room to do it.

“We don’t want to deter Mr. Patel or Darien Lake holding company from building on that property,” Ocasio said. “It’s sorely needed. We’re just asking for him to put himself in our shoes. If he was living behind this property, how would he feel?”

But it is not economically viable to reduce the hotel’s height, said Sean Hopkins, an attorney for the developer. And it has to be built to Holiday Inn’s specifications. Other attempts have been made to appease residents’ privacy concerns, he said, adding that “the neighbors have been polite, they’ve been professional.”

“We’ve made an effort to try to incorporate input from the residents,” he said. “It still may not be what they believe would be the best outcome but an effort has been made to address their concerns in terms of buffering, greenspace and screening.”

Ten-foot-tall trees and a fence have been incorporated into the revised site plan, which Hopkins said were submitted late last week to the town Planning Board in time for the board to review them at its May 6 meeting.

He also noted that Patel in January voluntarily withdrew a request for a variance to take the height even higher, to 61½ feet with a pitched roof.

“We’re back down to the 50 feet,” confirmed Planning Board Chairman Ken Swanekamp. “That’s what we’re working with.”

But with the revised site plans only recently submitted to the Planning Board, all sides are at a stand-still. “We’ve been waiting for months,” said Swanekamp. “So until we get the full set of revised drawings, the board can’t act.”

When the project was announced in March 2013, it was granted two variances by the town’s Zoning Board of Appeals. One allows it to be built at 50 feet, 5 feet above the maximum 45 feet allowed by town code. The other allows the hotel to be set back only 20 feet from Niagara Falls Boulevard, to increase the distance from neighboring backyards.

Town officials say they’re sympathetic to residents’ concerns.

“It’s a change to what they’re used to,” said Bargnesi, chairman of the Town Board’s Economic Development, Planning Board and Building Department committees. “It’s a change to their community back there and they’re a very tight-knit community. I’m trying to work it out with them as best we can.”

Similar conflicts have arisen when redeveloping parcels on Sheridan Drive, another busy commercial thoroughfare, he said, because those parcels are also shallow and back up to residences.

“We’re experienced in working with the residents,” Bargnesi said. “It’s just that this is a hotel, which is now at a height that’s got them mostly concerned.”

The residents maintain that there are no other four-story structures in their area of the town and that this one could set a precedent.

“We just want to make sure the rest of the town isn’t blindsided like the residents in Amherst were,” said Ocasio. “We want it to be out in the open.”

Partly as a result of the Hyatt controversy, the Amherst Town Board amended its zoning code in November to better control the scale of commercial development next to residential neighborhoods.

The Tonawanda residents have been circulating petitions and plan on attending the Town Board’s May 4 meeting to request a review of zoning laws.

“Those council members are supposed to represent the voices of the residents of the town,” Ocasio said. “We don’t know where else to go, except to turn to them at this point. And we’re hoping they’ll hear us.”