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What Amherst GOP candidates for Town Board say about Westwood project

None of the three Republican candidates in Tuesday's primary election for two seats on the Amherst Town Board want to see the former Westwood Country Club developed into a mix of housing for 1,700 people, retail and commercial space.

They all want to see the privately-owned 171-acre site between Sheridan Drive and Maple Road remain as green space, either as a recreational park or in its current form as a golf course.

How they get to that point is where their positions diverge. The two party-endorsed candidates want to revive a land swap idea. The third wants to seize the site through eminent domain.

The future of the biggest development proposal the town has seen in a decade will undoubtedly be on the minds of some of Amherst's 26,000 Republicans when they choose from among Erin Baker, Chris Drongosky and Joe Spino to appear in November's general election.

Meanwhile, the parcel continues to sit fenced-off and overgrown, contaminated by years of pesticide use, nearly six years after it was sold to Mensch Capital, a group of investment partners. Those are present conditions the candidates called "a shame," "tragic," and "disgusting."

Here's what each said about the project.

Erin Baker 

Baker wants to bring Westwood neighbors back to the table for discussions about the future of the former country club.

"The biggest concern coming from the neighborhood is people feel like they were never listened to in the first place and that's half the frustration," she said.

She wants to revisit a swap of Westwood for the town-owned municipal Audubon Golf Course across the street. The idea was first proposed in 2012 but negotiations between town officials and the developer collapsed in late 2015.

"I can't see any reason why we should not bring back up the swap," said Baker, 33, chief of staff for Assemblyman Ray Walter. "I think the most financially responsible way to make it a park, if that's what the residents want, would be to put that back on the table."

Baker is the most well-heeled candidate of the three. In the days leading up to Tuesday's primary, she reported $53,621 in her campaign account.

Chris Drongosky

Drongosky has made the future of Westwood the main focal point of his campaign. He said his first act as a council member would be to direct the Town Attorney's Office to commence eminent domain proceedings of the parcel to transform the property into "a world class recreation park. That's why I'm running."

Such a park would include baseball, softball, soccer and lacrosse fields; tennis courts; pickleball facilities and walking trails, he said.

"We canvassed across the town," said Drongosky, 59, of Snyder, a managing partner with specialty retailer Simply Certificates. "Snyder loves the idea of a recreational park there. Williamsville residents love the idea. North Amherst, East Amherst. It's across the town."

He would borrow the millions of dollars necessary to pay off the current owners and clean up the land. The town is considering spending up to $11 million to build a fifth ice rink at the Northtown Center, so why not instead spend that money to create a 171-acre park in the center of town? Drongosky asked.

"Our priorities I think are a little skewed at this time," he said.

Baker dismissed Drongosky as a "single issue candidate who wants to mortgage the financial future of the town just to get elected today."

"That, to me, is a problem," she said.

The town Republican Committee this week also blasted Drongosky, who forced a primary with the two endorsed Republicans, for failing to register as a candidate with the state Board of Elections and not filing any campaign finance reports. Joe Heins, the town Republican committee's campaign manager, called it "a bold and flagrant violation of election law."

Drongosky acknowledged he had not filed the required reports, but also noted he has declined to accept donations and has spent about $10,000 of his own money on the campaign to date. The reports will be filed by Tuesday, he added.

Drongosky criticized the endorsed Republicans because the state Republican Committee has paid for mailers supporting their campaigns, which he said is unusual for a town council race.

Heins responded that the Town Board race "is probably the most high-profile Republican primary in the state and spending reflects the importance placed on taking back the Town Board majority this year."

Joe Spino

Spino also wants to take a fresh look at the land swap on the Westwood project.

"It's an idea that I would like to see revisited once I'm elected," said Spino, 39, special projects coordinator for the Erie County District Attorney's Office.

The whole issue has been handled poorly by the town and by the developers, he said. Neighbors don't want the mixed-use development and the swap for Audubon makes perfect sense, he said.

But the cleanup and acquisition costs would be prohibitive for the town to just take over Westwood.

"I don't see that it's viable for the town to pick up that cost," said Spino, whose campaign reported it had $8,811 on hand after contributions in August totaling $4,463 and expenses totaling $3,252.

At this point he's not in favor of rezoning the Westwood parcel, which is required for the development to move forward.

"There's too many unanswered questions," he said.

The three candidates, if elected, may never even have a say in the Westwood project. The current Town Board will be given a presentation Monday afternoon and plans to hold a public hearing Monday afternoon on the $250 million plan.

It would be the first formal hearing on the project since January, as the Town Board seeks to jumpstart a review that has slowed since the start of the year.

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