For the first time in two years, the Amherst Town Board on Monday held an up-or-down vote on a key element of the massive Westwood mixed-use project: a statement detailing the development's likely environmental effects.
The Town Board voted to accept the report, known as a final generic environmental impact statement, which was prepared by a consultant hired by the town. Before the vote, several speakers during a public comment portion of the session asked the Town Board to hold off on a vote until three new board members take their seats in January.
The vote Monday won't determine the fate of the development at the former country club. Town officials described it as the next-to-final part of the environmental review process required under state law.
The Town Board could use the document approved Monday as the basis for a findings statement, which board members could vote on at their Dec. 11 meeting, said Town Supervisor Barry A. Weinstein.
Town officials emphasized Monday night that the vote had nothing to do with rezoning the site – which is also required for the project to proceed.
A vote on the rezoning cannot be held until the town Planning Board makes a recommendation and the developer, Mensch Capital Partners, requests a public hearing.
The 200-page environmental statement prepared by Stantec Consulting Services of Rochester summarizes what the developer proposes to do, how that has changed over the years and lays out the review process that began with Mensch's submission of its development plan in 2014.
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.
Traffic concerns from neighbors, as well as a lack of sanitary sewer capacity in the area between Maple Road and Sheridan Drive, stalled the plan.
The statement also included possible alternatives. They included a predominately residential project with commercial development on the site, or a smaller scale project that matches the existing sewer capacity.
The alternatives were stricken from the report in an amendment by Council Member Deborah Bruch Bucki that passed unanimously. Her amendment replaced the alternatives with more generic language stating that the issue has been raised with Mensch, but to date there have been no additional alternatives provided to the Town Board.
"A service to the town at this time would be to kick the can down the road," said Judy Ferraro, a frequent critic of the project, during the public-comment portion of the meeting. "Let it be addressed by the newly elected supervisor and board, who were selected by a majority of the people."
Deputy Town Supervisor Steven D. Sanders said he took offense at the suggestion that the current board should not act.
"I certainly think we who were also duly elected members of the Town Board do have a responsibility to do our job and not shut down for business once the election takes place," he said.
Mensch Capital Partners, in a letter Monday to Weinstein, said the statement had issues. Mensch contended that the statement did not contain all the comments submitted on the project, which town officials disputed.
Mensch said issuing the statement was premature because the Planning Board has not finished its review of the proposed rezoning of 140 acres of the 170-acre site.
Mensch Capital has filed a lawsuit against the town that is making its way through court.
But Monday, the Town Board took its own legal steps.
It agreed to raise the amount of an escrow account to pay its special counsel, the Hancock Estabrook firm, and Stantec for their services on the Westwood matter from $100,000 to $150,000. The board earlier this year required Mensch to fund that account, but officials said the developer has not done so.