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After years of delay in Amherst, a Westwood vote arrives

Westwood or West-wouldn't — Amherst still can't make up its mind.

Five and a half years ago, a group of investors bought the struggling Westwood Country Club.

Three years ago, the partners unveiled an ambitious, $238 million plan to transform the site into a "neighborhood" of houses, office buildings, retail shops, a hotel and recreational space.

It was one of the largest developments proposed in the town in years, and it immediately drew opposition from many neighbors and scrutiny from officials.

The Town Board, town Planning Board and town departments have grappled since 2014 with how the project would change the community, leaving critics and proponents alike waiting for a decision.

Now, for the first time in two years, the Town Board on Monday is set to hold an up-or-down vote on a key element of the project: a statement detailing the development's likely environmental effects.

As that vote looms, here's a primer on the Westwood development.

What do the developers want to do?

Mensch Capital has proposed four different versions since 2014, with each version tilting the overall mix of redevelopment further toward more housing and leaving slightly more green space at the site.

Mensch Capital's latest version, from March, is a $250 million mixed-use redevelopment of the sprawling, 171-acre site bounded by Sheridan Drive and Maple, North Forest and Frankhauser roads.

The group proposes transforming the property into housing for 1,700 people, retail and commercial space and parkland. Senior housing, townhouses and office buildings are all part of the plan.

“All of this is about listening to our neighbors,” Andrew J. Shaevel, Mensch Capital's managing partner, said in March in describing the latest changes.

Who are the members of Mensch Capital Partners?

The development team is led by Shaevel, a veteran Buffalo-area businessman, entrepreneur and Jewish community leader.

He's the public face of the group but several other well-known business leaders are partners in Mensch Capital.

They include developers Paul Ciminelli of Ciminelli Real Estate Corp., Paul J. Kolkmeyer of Priam Enterprises LLC and Mark Hamister of the Hamister Group.

Why don't the neighbors want the project?

People who live on the streets surrounding the former country club have raised a host of concerns.

Primarily, they say the development would bring too much traffic, bring down property values, eliminate valuable green space and hurt their quality of life.

“This is not a plan designed to fit in with the surrounding neighborhood, be consistent with the Comprehensive Plan and benefit the town, but a megalopolis designed to maximize profit for the benefit of the owners,” Jennifer Snyder-Haas, a Fairways Boulevard resident, said at a recent Town Board hearing on the project.

The developers say a study showed the project won't add traffic congestion on nearby streets, and they point to the economic benefits the development would bring.

Also, they say they would preserve 49 percent of the site as permanent open green space.

What about the town swapping golf courses with the developer?

Mensch Capital would have given the town the former 18-hole golf course at Westwood and the town would have given the developers 170 acres of the town-owned Audubon Golf Course, across the street at 500 Maple Road.

That would have moved the development away from the densely populated neighborhood where most of the opposition to the project has come from.

The developers would have received prime land closer to the University at Buffalo, and the town would have received what is considered a better golf course.

But Amherst and Mensch Capital couldn't agree on the value of the properties, and the deal fell through.

What's happened since the partners bought Westwood, and what does it look like today?

The private golf course, banquet facility and catering operation stayed open through the end of 2014, when it abruptly shut down.

In summer 2015, Mensch Capital put up a 5-foot-high fence around the property to the annoyance of town officials. Caution signs lining the fence say the property is a "contaminated brownfield" and warn people not to trespass.

Mensch Capital keeps the grass mowed, but not as often as neighbors would like it done.

Northtown Automotive Group has a month-to-month lease to park overstock vehicles on the property, said Larry Schreiber, Northtown's co-owner. The dealership has about 100 vehicles there now.

Will Amherst acquire Westwood Country Club through eminent domain?

What are the key obstacles to the project?

Sanitary sewer capacity is the foremost hurdle. Town officials have determined, and the developer concedes, that the area around the Westwood site has inadequate capacity during heavy rains.

Town officials and the developer disagree over how to remedy the situation.

The site also was contaminated from years of pesticide, herbicide and fungicide use, and estimates for the cost of cleaning it up range from $6 million to $9 million.

Mensch Capital won't do that work until it receives assurances that it can proceed with the project.

What are other plans for Westwood?

Some residents and town officials would like to see it turned into a town park, like those in Cheektowaga or Clarence.

That would require the town to buy the property from Mensch Capital, clean it up and develop it into a multi-use park. It's not clear how much that would cost or where the money would come from.

Supervisor-elect Brian J. Kulpa wants to turn the site into a park, centered on a clubhouse reopened as a cultural center.

“I believe we have an opportunity to create an awesome green space,” Kulpa previously told The News.

Some like the idea of reviving the land swap, if that's possible, or reopening the country club, which was struggling at the time it was purchased by Mensch Capital.

What's going to happen Monday?

The Town Board is expected to vote on whether to accept a report laying out the project's environmental effects. A consultant hired by the town has prepared the document, known as a final generic environmental impact statement.

"I would like to move forward with it," Councilwoman Ramona D. Popowich said in an interview.

What Amherst GOP candidates for Town Board say about Westwood project

The Town Board held a public hearing on Sept. 18 on the project's environmental effects and accepted further public comment through Oct. 2. Amherst Supervisor Barry A. Weinstein said the town received more than 400 comments on the development's potential environmental effects, including a response from the developer that arrived Wednesday.

The 200-page environmental statement prepared by the consultant, Stantec Consulting Services of Rochester, summarizes what the developer is proposing to do, how that has changed over the years and lays out the review process that began with Mensch Capital's submission of its development plan in 2014.

It also includes possible alternatives to the development plan "that could and should be evaluated in further detail." They include a predominately residential project with "neighborhood-scale," commercial development on the site, or a smaller scale project that matches the existing sewer capacity.

The Town Board has taken over the environmental review process from the town Planning Board, after growing frustrated with the slow pace of the Planning Board's study of the project.

Weinstein, who leaves office at the end of the year, said he hopes the document, if accepted Monday, provides a road map to guide future decisions by the Town Board.

What's next for Westwood?

However it turns out, Monday's vote won't determine the fate of the development.

The Town Board could use the document approved Monday as the basis for a findings statement, which board members could vote on at their December meeting, Weinstein said.

The Town Board still must approve rezoning 140 acres of the site and the Planning Board must make a recommendation on that action first.

Kulpa and two new Democratic members will take their seats on the Town Board in January, giving the board a 5-0 Democratic cast. It's unclear how the new board will act on Westwood.

Nothing is going to move forward until the sewer capacity issue, at the least, is addressed.

And Mensch Capital has filed a lawsuit against the town that is making its way through court.

Amherst wins latest round in court in Westwood fight

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