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Amherst supervisor airs frustrations, criticisms in final State of the Town address

Amherst Supervisor Barry A. Weinstein offered blunt criticism Friday of the candidates who win election in the town and the decisions they make once they take office.

In his final State of the Town address, Weinstein, who is barred by term limits from seeking re-election as supervisor, offered candid views on a host of pressing issues facing upstate New York's most populous town.

Weinstein said the redevelopment planned for the Westwood Country Club is too dense for that location, and said ongoing losses at the Northtown Center could force the town to privatize the ice rink facility.

The supervisor, a Conservative, also lamented projects that stalled in 2016, his first year in the minority on the Town Board after six years in the board majority. And he said the current board continues to clean up mistakes made by previous Town Boards.

"It really makes a difference who the voters of Amherst put in office," Weinstein said to an audience of about 300 at Classics V restaurant and banquet hall in Amherst.

Weinstein's most pointed comments deviated from draft State of the Town remarks he prepared in advance and shared with The Buffalo News. That draft, and the bulk of the supervisor's speech, covered Weinstein's accomplishments over his first six years in office and offered relatively neutral thoughts on the challenges ahead.

Weinstein told the crowd he worked on the speech for the past month, but he spent four hours Friday morning revising the address.

He outlined a list of priorities for 2017, including proposing a budget that holds the line on taxes, but said he is deeply concerned about the future of the town.

"I fear for my successor," Weinstein said at the event, which was put together by the Amherst Chamber of Commerce.

Weinstein toward the end of his address recited a litany of concerns about the direction he thinks the town is taking.

The projects that he couldn't win board backing for last year included leases of cell phone towers, which he said would have brought in millions of dollars in revenue over 20 years, and a complicated land swap involving the town's Audubon Golf Course, the Westwood site and the former gun club site.

Though Weinstein was convinced of their merits, both proposals had their detractors.

The reuse of the former Westwood Country Club site is the largest and most controversial development proposal in the town today. Mensch Capital Partners plans a $250 million mixed-use redevelopment that is bitterly opposed by a group of residents who live near the site, between Sheridan Drive and Maple Road.

Weinstein says the project is making its way through the approval process and so far the developers have not fully addressed concerns about traffic, sanitary sewer, drainage and remediation of contamination.

He went on to say, however, that the number of apartments and senior-housing units, including housing for 1,700 people, "in my opinion is too dense for the neighborhood and the site."

He also said the losses at the Northtown Center won't be sustainable for long and the town may have to turn the ice rink over to private operators, as it did with its composting facility.

In his most direct criticism, he said earlier boards acted inappropriately in scuttling deals with developers or in conducting property transactions. He said the town continues to pay the price today.

"We have spent the last nine years correcting previous Town Board mistakes," Weinstein said.

Weinstein blames a judgment in the long-standing lawsuit filed by William L. Huntress of Acquest Wehrle as the primary reason property taxes went up in 2017 for the first time in years. The town had to pay $4 million, including the initial award, plus interest and attorney's fees, to resolve the suit Huntress filed in 2006 claiming the town violated his rights to develop land in Amherst.

He said "recycling old names" in the candidates for elected office is a problem in the town, as is the "very poor judgment that permeates both parties."

Weinstein did not identify specific offenders.

Not everything is gloom and doom in the town.

During his first six years in office, Weinstein said he and the board lowered the cost of running the town, held the line on taxes, negotiated new labor agreements with employees and privatized town services. They also converted to self-insurance for town employees' health insurance, set aside more land for parks, settled costly legal disputes and prevented the deterioration of vulnerable properties in Amherst.

The new year will bring a townwide revaluation of homes and businesses, the first conducted in Amherst since 2009. Weinstein said a reassessment is long overdue and is likely to send assessments up for one-third of property owners, down for one-third of property owners and to hold them flat for one-third of property owners.

"I would like to thank the council members who served with me, especially the first six years when we accomplished so much for the residents of Amherst," Weinstein said.

Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul spoke prior to Weinstein and praised the economic turnaround the town and the rest of the region have made in recent decades.

She also sought support for Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's proposed extension of the Metro rail from Buffalo into Amherst, saying it would connect the UB North Campus to the growing Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus.

"Let's get that done," Hochul said.

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