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Will an all-Democratic Town Board favor development in Amherst?

Angelo S. Natale is in Florida, but that hasn't stopped several fellow developers from calling him this morning to express concern about the results from Tuesday's elections in Amherst.

Democrats swept the town supervisor's race and the two Town Board seats that were up for grabs, giving them all five seats on the board for the first time in recent memory.

Natale, the CEO of Natale Development and the owner of Natale Builders, said he's tried to reassure his fellow executives. Natale said he doesn't know the winning Town Board candidates, Jacqualine G. Berger and Shawn A. Lavin, but he knows the supervisor-elect, Williamsville Mayor Brian J. Kulpa, well from Natale's work in the village.

"What I replied is, 'Give Brian a chance. I think he'll be great for Amherst,'" Natale said. "He's an architect by trade. He understands what it needs for growth, smart growth."

Amherst Supervisor-elect Brian Kulpa (Provided photo)

Developers, members of the business community and elected officials are absorbing the election results from Amherst, Erie County's most populous suburb, where Kulpa defeated his Republican opponent, Town Clerk Marjory Jaeger, and where the two Democratic board candidates finished at the top of a five-person field.

Development was a key campaign issue in Amherst, where reuse of the former Westwood Country Club remains a pressing consideration for the Town Board and where developers seeking to build on the town's few remaining pockets of green space run up against neighbors who complain about the effects on traffic and quality of life.

With the election results barely 12 hours old, observers are just beginning to debate what the change of the Town Board from a narrow, 3-2 Democratic majority to 5-0 Democratic control will mean for business and development in Amherst.

"I think developers are worried whenever there is change," Colleen DiPirro, CEO of the Amherst Chamber of Commerce.

Natale and DiPirro both said they know Kulpa well and spoke highly of his background as an urban planner. Natale said Kulpa has been reasonable to work with on Natale Development's Asher Crossing mixed-use project in Williamsville.

DiPirro said the Chamber liked the economic-development proposal it heard from Kulpa, but she and Chamber President Anthony Baynes Jr. have had very little interaction with Berger and Lavin.

"AJ and I are looking forward to getting to know them," DiPirro said. "They are absolutely an unknown quantity."

David Chiazza, an executive vice president with Iskalo Development, said Iskalo made contributions to both Kulpa and Jaeger during the campaign, and Chiazza personally donated to the campaigns of Republican Town Board candidates Erin Baker and Joseph Spino because he knows them.

Kulpa elected Amherst town supervisor as Democrats win full control of board

Historically, Republicans were viewed as looking more favorably at new development projects, and Democrats were considered more likely to oppose development that infringed on green space.

But DiPirro and Chiazza both said party labels don't mean as much as they used to for elected officials.

In fact, Chiazza said, he prefers when working on a project in a town, to deal with a government that has a 6-1 or 5-0 overwhelming majority in the hands of one party or the other, either Democrats or Republicans, because then it cuts out the bitter fighting that you can have on a narrowly split board.

"There's a certain predictability there," Chiazza said.

That said, Chiazza said he will look at whether the climate in Amherst toward development changes, and that will determine whether the company moves forward with future projects there.

"Like most developers, we'll react to what we see," Chiazza said.

DiPirro said she hopes the Chamber can play a role in connecting developers and business leaders to the newly elected town officials.

The Town Board is considering whether to rezone a large swath of the former Westwood Country Club to allow for a massive mixed-use project by Mensch Capital Partners that has been under debate for years. That's one of a number of projects recently approved or still under consideration in the town.

Mensch group adds green space, fire station to Westwood Country Club redevelopment plan

Kulpa said the lack of sanitary sewer capacity for the $250 million Westwood proposal is a "simple math problem" the developer would have to solve before the project could proceed. Kulpa said there's an opportunity for creating a park and preserving the historic clubhouse as a world-class cultural center for the town.

Steven Sanders, an outgoing Republican Town Board member who was barred from running again by term limits, said he was concerned when he thought he heard Berger and Lavin say at candidate forums that they would not under any circumstances vote to rezone the Westwood site.

Making a pronouncement before you've joined the Town Board, Sanders said, could open the town up to litigation.

Berger and Lavin, in responses to questionnaires provided to The Buffalo News, didn't specifically address Westwood but said responsible development was a priority for their campaigns.

"I intend to preserve green space while continuing investment in our town in areas with aging infrastructure," Lavin said. "I intend to protect our established neighborhoods and property values."

Berger, for her part, said, "I want to champion responsible development that keeps infrastructure, green space and neighborhoods at the forefront. Residents and neighbors should come before developers."

Sanders and Natale said there is not a lot of developable green space left in the town, and whoever was elected to the Town Board on Tuesday would confront that reality.

Natale said he hopes Berger and Lavin keep an open mind about the projects he and other developers bring to the board.

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

The new Town Board also will control appointments to the town Planning Board, Zoning Board of Appeals and Industrial Development Agency board of directors, all of which play major roles in development in the town.

"My hope is that they don't make appointments that are purely ideological," said Sanders, who also sits on the IDA board.

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