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As green space shrinks, will Amherst start saying no to developers?

Amherst for years was known as the town that rarely said no to development.

The town saw explosive growth in office parks, hotels and housing subdivisions in recent decades, particularly in the years after the opening of the University at Buffalo North Campus, and during and after Jack Sharpe's tenure as town supervisor from 1976 to 1990.

But this year, the Town Board has rejected a proposed 500-student housing project and three major subdivision proposals before the Planning Board are running up against steep opposition.

The three proposed projects at the former Westwood Country Club, Muir Woods and on New Road have a combined value, including infrastructure, of $335 million — an investment that might sound attractive to officials in many towns.

But the mood in Amherst may be shifting.

"I would say the Town of Amherst always supported smart growth. As there was more developable land available, it seemed like we were being more pro-development," said Steven D. Sanders, the deputy town supervisor. "As the amount of developable land is severely reduced, you see a lot more projects being rejected, because it doesn't fit."

In January, 15 people objected to Mensch Capital Partner's proposal to reuse the former Westwood Country Club, raising concerns about traffic, stormwater runoff and a desire to preserve Amherst's rapidly shrinking store of green space. Only two supported the project.

Three months later, 11 neighbors complained about Natale Builders' plan to construct 80 homes on vacant land along New Road near the Millersport Highway at the April Planning Board meeting. Traffic and environmental problems were high on their list of fears.

And in June, 15 people commented on Ciminelli Real Estate Corp.'s proposal to build 133 single-family homes on a corner of the company's massive Muir Woods property in the town. Nearly all opposed the company's plan for getting traffic in and out of the site.

At the main entrance of the former Westwood Country Club on North Forest Road in Amherst, a sign warns of pollution on the property. Neighbors have objected to a mixed-use development planned for the site. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

Lawmakers, developers and residents say the fate of the three projects is uncertain in today's climate in Amherst.

Part of what's going on could be that residential housing growth has slowed in recent years, never recovering from its pre-recession peak.

The number of single-family homes being started in the town in 2016 was only 29 percent of the number in 2002 and far below the 20-year average.

But the amount of available green space in the town that's easy to build on is also shrinking. That's forcing developers to seek out sites that bump up against existing residential neighborhoods, that are pockmarked by wetlands or that have other issues making them harder to reuse.

And that's setting up bruising fights with neighbors, and subjecting the projects to greater scrutiny from town officials, according to observers.

Developers of the three proposed large housing projects say the projects fit with the town's comprehensive plan, would boost the town's tax base and would meet the needs of home buyers in Amherst.

"I don't know if they're putting a wall per se, on it. I do know that they're taking a cautious approach," said Angelo Natale, CEO of Natale Builders. "You could ask me this in about three months. I could tell you how large the wall is, and if it's insurmountable or if it's crossable."

Now, not every proposed project received approval in the past. And it may be a coincidence that three large developments are going through the review process at the same time this year.

But it seems Amherst could be rolling up the welcome mat.

"It happened, and it happens in all suburban communities that are fast-growing, and are desirable because of schools and the amenities that the town offers. But now's the time for something else," said Michele Marconi, who was a resident opponent of a hotel development before winning appointment to the Amherst Industrial Development Agency board. "I think there's a recognition that the town is built out."

The reputation

Amherst over the years earned a reputation for welcoming development. Office parks, the sprawling Audubon and Ransom Oaks residential communities, hotels and retail plazas all sprouted up in Amherst in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s.

Sharpe, who died in 2006, succinctly summed up his position in 1988 when he said, "Growth in Amherst is positive."

Judith M. Ferraro, a member of Amherst coalitions that oppose development at the former Westwood and Buffalo Shooting Club properties, said the reputation of town officials is well-earned. She said that even in recent years, residents have had a feeling that "if a developer comes in, they are going to find a way to make it happen."

The town Planning Department doesn't keep track on a year-by-year basis of how many projects ultimately receive final rezoning or site plan approvals from the Town or Planning boards.

But a review of building permit data shows single-family home construction in the town has fallen sharply since 2005. The average number of single-family homes built in Amherst over the past 20 years was 130, but over the past 10 years that number fell to 85.

"I would say we now have very limited green space on which to explore any potential development," said Town Board member Deborah Bruch Bucki. "So I think now more than ever it's important to be very careful and to evaluate all those environmental factors, because there's very little open land left that is able and suitable to be developed. So we should be cautious how we proceed."

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Housing projects such as Muir Woods and New Road aren't particularly common in Amherst. The town approved just 27 subdivisions of more than 10 acres over the previous 20 years, according to the Planning Department.

But the two housing developments, along with the mixed-use Westwood redevelopment, share common themes. All three would go up on now-vacant parcels, marked by trees, wetlands, waterways or all three.

The sites are wedged up against other housing developments and neighborhoods, and where their owners see an opportunity to build, those neighbors would prefer to keep their present-day view undisturbed.

Residents have posted signs in Amherst showing their opposition to the proposed redevelopment of the former Westwood Country Club. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

Westwood Country Club 

The owners of the Westwood Country Club, Mensch Capital Partners, want to transform the site into a $250 million mix of housing for 1,700 people, commercial and retail space and parkland.

The Mensch group bought the country club in 2012 and closed the struggling club and golf course in 2014.

The 171-acre property now is almost completely surrounded by a fence marked at various points by signs warning against trespassing because the site is a contaminated brownfield. That's due to pesticides, herbicides and fungicides applied to the golf course.

The ownership group's ambitious plans for reusing the property have stalled. Mensch has revised its original proposal for redeveloping the Westwood site three additional times, most recently in March.

The Amherst Planning Board in January tabled its review of the project's rezoning request, and hasn't brought it back for a vote since then. The board still is awaiting further documentation on the project's effects on traffic, sanitary sewer and stormwater runoff. There is no timetable for its return to the Planning Board's agenda.

And the Town Board last month voted to hire an outside law firm to advise it on various legal matters involving the Westwood site, including the potential acquisition of the property through eminent domain.

Will Amherst acquire Westwood Country Club through eminent domain?

Andrew J. Shaevel, Mensch's managing partner, declined to comment on the project's prospects.

Rebecca Kopp lives with her fiancé on Fairways Boulevard, bordering the former country club, with tall bushes blocking most of the view of the property.

"I just hope they do make it a park," said Kopp, taking a break from mowing her lawn on a muggy morning last week. "I don't know what it will do to the value of our home if they do build condos and a plaza."

Muir Woods, in Amherst. (File photo/Buffalo News)

Muir Woods

Ciminelli Real Estate this year attempted to revive its redevelopment of the long-vacant Muir Woods property.

The company acquired the massive, 326-acre site in 2000 and over the years variously proposed building millions of square feet of office space, hundreds of apartments and dozens of homes.

But the wetlands that cover much of the property hampered Ciminelli's redevelopment efforts, and the company finally scaled back its plans to focus on a 46-acre corner of the site.

Ciminelli in February revealed it would, with Ryan Homes, build 133 single-family homes in a first phase of the Muir Woods project estimated at a cost of $50 million. The site is zoned appropriately for single-family homes.

Many neighbors have objected to plans that called for connecting the new subdivision to Campbell Boulevard and to North French Road through the existing dead end street of Lynette Lane.

"It has gotten noticeably worse," said North French Road resident Karen Ford, referring to the traffic backups at Campbell and North French and the daily sounds of screeching car tires. "So I made a choice to live on a busy street, but I made a choice to not live on Niagara Falls Boulevard or Transit Road, you know? It's a two-lane street."

The Planning Board put off a vote on the project at its June meeting after 15 residents raised concerns. The board is set to take it up again at its August meeting.

Planning Board delays review of Muir Woods subdivision in Amherst

Ciminelli officials declined an interview request. But in a statement about the project, Ciminelli spokeswoman Anne E. Duggan said, “We have been doing business in the Town of Amherst for over 35 years, developing new projects that have contributed to its tax base. We have enjoyed a solid working relationship with the Town and its departments, and look forward to continuing to work together to help Amherst prosper.”

A dumped pile of rocks near the proposed location on New Road in Amherst where Natale Builders proposes a housing subdivision. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

New Road

Unlike the other projects, Natale Builders' project cleared its first hurdle when it went before the Planning Board in April.

Natale wants to construct 80 single-family and patio homes on a 57-acre property on New Road near Millersport Highway.

The site has wetlands and is home to an extensive variety of wildlife, according to residents of the nearby Autumn Meadows subdivision.

Natale plans up to 80 patio and single-family homes in East Amherst

At April's Planning Board meeting, 11 residents spoke against the project, citing concerns about traffic on New Road, sprawl, flooding and drainage and loss of wildlife habitat and green space.

"It's a disaster waiting to happen," said Anthony Sgroi, a New Road resident who is concerned about safety with increased congestion on the road.

Natale, the CEO, said it is hard to find developable land in Amherst but said building single-family and patio homes on this property fits in the town's comprehensive plan.

"We are getting some resistance from the neighbors, because this property is nestled in between two existing developments. But it's interesting to note that 15 years ago it was the same type of property that they had and they had to get rezoned," Natale said in an interview. "I think it fits within the community and I don't think we're doing anything out of character and I think the demand is there."

Natale's investment in the site, including infrastructure, could reach $35 million.

The Planning Board voted 5-1 to recommend rezoning 49 acres of the 57-acre property on New Road near Millersport Highway, from suburban agricultural to residential. The Town Board's vote on the rezoning has not been scheduled.

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