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Environmental study of Westwood could kick off review of $238 million plan

While it remains to be seen what will ultimately come of the former Westwood Country Club site, the Amherst Town Board is poised to take action Monday that could kick off a public review of plans to turn it into sprawling $238 million mixed-use development.

When the board meets at 7 p.m. for its last regular business meeting of 2015, among the items it will consider is whether to accept a draft environmental impact study on developing the 170-acre site in the heart of Erie County’s most populous town. The proposal calls for a mix of single-family housing, apartments, condominiums, office space, a nursing home and a four-story hotel. Some are concerned that the density of the project will ruin the tranquility of neighboring communities and overburden Amherst’s already commuter clogged roads.

Town officials stressed that acceptance of the document is not tantamount to agreeing with the substance of its contents.

“The purpose of the Draft Generic Environmental Impact Statement is that a number of questions were raised by the town, and the developer has an obligation to answer those questions,” said Councilman Guy R. Marlette.

“They may not necessarily provide the answers that we want to hear, but they are obligated to answer those questions,” Marlette added.

Previous draft plans that the developer submitted in July 2014 and in March were rejected as inadequate by both the Town Board and the planning board because the developer failed to address issues concerning public and private utilities, as well as the proposed density of the project.

If those and other questions are adequately addressed in the developer’s third submission, the Town Board will likely vote its approval, kicking off a process that will see the document released to the public for comments at future public hearings set up by the Town Planning Board.

“This is only one small step in a very long process that I would anticipate will take a couple of years, at least,” said Marlette.

Otherwise, he said, the Town board is wise to follow proper procedures in considering the developer’s proposal to avoid the specter of future court challenges.

“The last thing you want to do is be sued in court for not following proper procedure and have it taken out of the hands of the Town Board and have all the decisions made within the court system,” Marlette added.

Once the Town Board approves a draft environmental impact statement, the developer will then be required to submit an actual site plan before issuing a final environmental impact statement. After more public hearings, the Town Board will have final say on the proposed mixed-use development, which will be the first such project to come before the board since changes were made to the zoning law. That zoning law now requires site plans be evaluated as a whole rather than in piecemeal fashion, Supervisor Barry A. Weinstein said.

Recently, the supervisor, at the request of his colleagues on the Town Board, has been looking into the possibility of buying part or all of Westwood from Mensch Capital Partners, the four-member investor group that purchased the property at Sheridan Drive and North Forest Road for $2.5 million in 2012. Town officials have expressed interest in seeking state funding to preserve a portion of the Westwood property as greenspace, similar to how the town acquired land for Amherst State Park on Mill Street from the Sisters of St. Francis.

Meanwhile, town officials still face mounting pressure from Westwood neighbors opposed to the large-scale development. Those opponents have gained new allies on the Town Board following election in November of two Democrats, who ran on a platform of limiting development.

Deborah Bruck Bucki and Francina Spoth were elected to succeed Marlette and Democrat Mark A. Manna. Those two already served two consecutive terms on the board, and thus were enjoined from running for re-election and will be stepping down at the end of the month.

Bucki and Spoth will give the Town Board its first Democratic majority in more than a decade when they take office next month.