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Will Amherst acquire Westwood Country Club through eminent domain?

Amherst is considering acquiring the former Westwood Country Club site through eminent domain, but that is just one option being considered, town officials said Monday.

Mensch Capital Partners, which owns the 171-acre property, has proposed a $250 million mixed-use development of Westwood that has drawn stiff opposition from neighbors.

The Town Board on Monday night unanimously agreed to hire the Hancock Estabrook law firm to advise the town on a range of potential legal matters involving Westwood that officials anticipate may arise whether the Town Board approves or rejects the developer's Westwood application.

"I am not interested in pursuing eminent domain at this point," Deputy Supervisor Steven Sanders said, but he noted the town may be in a different position six months, a year or two years from now.

Eminent domain is the power of a government to acquire private property and put it to a public use, as long as the owner is compensated fair value for the property.

The resolution the Town Board approved also mentions hiring Hancock Estabrook to handle issues related to condemnation and land redevelopment of the Westwood property.

Sanders said the developer has presented one option for the reuse of the former country club, but the town wants Hancock Estabrook to examine other options. The town plans to hire the firm for two years.

Sean W. Hopkins, an attorney for Mensch Capital, argued in a letter to Town Attorney Stanley J. Sliwa that any action taken by the town to try to take back the land from the developer would not be a wise use of taxpayer money.

Hopkins wrote that's because Mensch is already setting aside land within the development as open space and because the town would be taking on a considerable cost to acquire and clean up the site, which is a brownfield.

Mensch Capital's proposal to redevelop the former country club into mixed-use housing for 1,700 people, retail and commercial space and park land is awaiting review by the town Planning Board. It also must receive the approval of the Town Board.

Sliwa and Sanders said nothing in the hiring of outside counsel preempts this review process, but Andrew J. Shaevel, Mensch's managing partner, disagrees.

"They're supposed to be open-minded, and it appears there's nothing open-minded about this process," Shaevel said in an interview.

As for whether the town is simply exploring its options, Shaevel said, "The purpose of the resolution is written in the resolution," which refers prominently to eminent domain and condemnation.

Neighbors help shape 4th version of controversial Westwood project

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