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Preferred developer named for new Tonawanda ‘villas’

A plan to build the first new homes in the City of Tonawanda in about three decades took the first step forward Tuesday when a Williamsville homebuilder was named the exclusive developer of about 14 acres of vacant, wooded land in the city.

The Common Council designated David Homes as the preferred developer of the city-owned land along Little League Drive, between Veterans Park and Fletcher Street. But the vote was not unanimous, and came over the objections of a handful of residents.

The move allows Mayor Rick Davis to enter negotiations for a contract with the developer to build the city’s first new homes since the Niagara Shores townhomes in the late 1980s.

David Stapleton, owner of David Homes, in September proposed an array of concepts including single-family, patio-style and “villas,” which are single-story and low-maintenance attached homes. David Homes is perhaps best known as the builder of a home on Buffalo’s West Side in 2009 for the “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” TV show.

But First Ward Councilman Charles Gilbert, the sponsor of Tuesday’s resolution, said the Little League Drive development would likely be similar to what David Homes is building now in Amherst at its Audubon Landing community.

“He builds quality homes and when he builds a subdivision he follows through,” Gilbert said before the meeting. “It gets done on a relatively quick basis.”

Debates about what – if anything – to do with the land have raged in the city for decades. The city even selected a different developer in 2013, only to have a new mayor back out of the agreement the next year.

The goal in Tonawanda is to create a vibrant and walkable community, Stapleton said last year. Stapleton, who was not present at Tuesday’s meeting, said during a public presentation that the villas are designed to be “step-free” and would meet a demand by residents who want to stay in the city but in smaller homes.

A preliminary drawing submitted last year shows 18 structures on the land, each with four attached villas, for a total of 72 homes, with all vehicular traffic entering and exiting on Wadsworth Avenue, off Fletcher.

“It provides a different form of homes in the City of Tonawanda than are existing today,” Stapleton said then.

The Council also had been considering a proposal from Brownstone Homes that wanted to build about 40 custom single-family homes on individual lots for residents ranging from empty-nesters to first-time homebuyers.

The Council’s vote to select David Homes was 3-2, with 3rd Ward Councilman Sean M. Rautenstrauch and 2nd Ward Councilwoman Jackie N. Smilinich joining Gilbert in favor of the designation. Council President Jenna N. Koch and 4th Ward Councilman Timothy J. Toth voted against.

Toth, whose ward includes the land, asked the Council to table the resolution until ongoing updates to the city’s Local Waterfront Redevelopment Plan and Comprehensive Plan are completed. His motion was defeated.

Smilinich noted that the Council’s action permits the mayor only to enter contract negotiations and “is by no means an authorization to build 70 villas, which has been misconstrued and erroneously circulated.”

“There is currently no accepted number or types of homes,” she said. “It’s a blank slate.”

Members of a civic group called Envision Tonawanda led by resident Roger Puchalski raised a number of objections before the Council’s vote. Puchalski said the Council should have waited for the results of his group’s survey of residents about development projects citywide.

Puchalski presented a “gift” to the Council, a large roll of duct tape he said signified a silencing of the public’s voice on the issue.

He also questioned why the previous preferred developer had to pay a monthly fee to the city and was given a timeline for developing the land, while there are no such requirements for David Homes, and why no public hearing has been held on plans for the land.

Gilbert said the designation is only the “first step” in a lengthy process that would also need the council’s approval to sign a contract and sell the land.