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Amherst-Tonawanda planning for Niagara Falls Boulevard hits bump in the road

The towns of Amherst and Tonawanda are off to a shaky start if they plan on working together to shape a better boulevard along their shared border.

Amherst – which recently agreed to embark on a master plan for Niagara Falls Boulevard – has started outlining a strategy to achieve some uniformity along both sides of the congested, mishmash of a road.

In fact, Amherst is inviting stakeholders – including state, county and regional transportation officials – to serve on a planning committee for the corridor that would meet quarterly.

What remains to be seen is how much involvement there will be from the neighbor that shares the other half of the boulevard.

Publicly, planners in Tonawanda are on board with the concept and have spoken to their counterparts in Amherst about taking a seat at the table. Tonawanda has several concerns on Niagara Falls Boulevard that need to be addressed, including the height of future buildings, drainage and the walkability along sections of the boulevard, said James Hartz, director of the Office of Planning and Development in Tonawanda.

“We do want to be involved. Niagara Falls Boulevard has been on the planning radar screen for years,” Hartz said. “With an effort underway, we’re going to make every reasonable effort to be part of that.”

Privately, though, some in Tonawanda said they were caught off guard by the proposal and surprised that Amherst forged ahead with little or no notice to its neighbors on the west. There are questions about motivation and whether this is just for attention before the November election.

“We don’t need another layer of government,” said Tonawanda Councilman Joseph H. Emminger.

“I’m not sure what they’re trying to accomplish,” said Tonawanda Councilman John Bargnesi Jr. “They’ve got most of the development on their side of the street completed.”

The need for joint planning along Niagara Falls Boulevard was raised more than 20 years ago by former Amherst Supervisor Daniel J. Ward, who acknowledged that Amherst didn’t do a good job planning along the road and asked Tonawanda to take part in the project to improve boulevard parking, traffic flow and appearance.

Tonawanda declined.

This time around, the concept was initiated in June by Amherst Councilman Guy R. Marlette, who is running for Erie County legislator.

The idea, Marlette said, is for the two communities to develop a more seamless, unified approach along the boulevard to improve the overall aesthetics.

The two towns, for example, could discuss ways to calm traffic along the residential stretch of the boulevard, between Kenmore Avenue and Eggert Road, or provide incentives to help some of the homeowners update their properties.

Along the boulevard’s dense commercial strip, there may be opportunities to unify zoning, building codes or height restrictions. Parking, signs, landscaping and vehicle access in and out of boulevard driveways are other potential issues.

It may take years – and teamwork by state, county and town governments – to make a difference, but it might prevent more haphazard development or avert neighborhood development battles down the road, Marlette said.

“I hope that they would see this actually could work and that this is a good idea,” Marlette said. “I think there were some misconceptions and the idea that it be a formal planning commission was maybe overemphasized.

“I think there’s a willingness on both sides to communicate about development policy and zoning code issues within the corridor.”