The Town of Amherst wants to buy a 57-acre East Amherst property, a move that would scuttle a developer's plans to build an 80-house subdivision there.
It's the latest twist in a project that has pitted neighbor against neighbor and revived a split between the Town Board and Amherst's Zoning Board of Appeals.
Outgoing Amherst Supervisor Barry A. Weinstein said he wants the town to buy the land at 284 New Road and leave it undeveloped to help prevent flooding in that section of Amherst. The move would satisfy the vocal group of neighbors who oppose Natale Builders' development plans for the property, though Weinstein said this wasn't a factor in his thinking.
But the owners of the property, the Richard Jacobs Family Trust, have rejected the town's offer, and its lawyer said the offer and its timing are "befuddling."
"I don't know what the town's up to," said Jeffery D. Palumbo, an attorney with Barclay Damon. "It's beyond me that the town is going to start buying land when the project's in the middle of approvals."
The town's purchase offer is the latest wrinkle in the controversial proposal to build up to 80 single-family and patio homes on the largely vacant parcel between Millersport Highway and New Road.
At Natale Builders request, the Planning Board in April recommended rezoning 49 acres of the property from suburban agricultural to residential, over the objections of some neighbors who raised concerns about the project’s effects on wetlands, drainage, traffic, pedestrian safety and wildlife on the property.
A public hearing on the rezoning request is set for March, after a new, all-Democrat Town Board takes over in January.
On Tuesday, at Weinstein's direction, Town Attorney Stanley J. Sliwa reached out to the Jacobses to find out if they would be willing to sell the property to the town.
Sliwa called Lynn Jacobs, whose husband, Richard A., is trustee of the family trust. Palumbo returned the call.
Sliwa said he never offered a specific dollar amount to the Jacobses. He said he wanted to gauge their interest in selling.
"They didn't want to negotiate," Sliwa said.
Palumbo said he doesn't understand why Sliwa would call his client, first, instead of calling him directly. Palumbo represents the Jacobses in the property transaction and Natale Builders, the developer, in its dealings with the town.
Palumbo said the Jacobses have a contract with Natale that bars them from entertaining an offer from anyone else. The sale to Natale hasn't closed and the terms remain confidential. The property is assessed at $207,000.
Palumbo said he finds it interesting that the town's purchase offer comes shortly after he filed a request for a use variance from the town Zoning Board. That would allow the project to move forward without a zoning change.
It also comes just two weeks after the Town Board lost the opening round of a lawsuit it filed against the Zoning Board over an unrelated development where the Town Board had rejected the rezoning request but the Zoning Board had issued a use variance.
"Why didn't it come up months ago?" Palumbo said. "I think it's curious – curious is a good word."
Weinstein said a key part of the town's flood-control system, named ditch 26B, runs through the Jacobs property.
The channel, which was widened recently, begins south of Sheridan Drive, near Ayer Road, and collects water runoff from subdivisions, detention ponds and other stormwater control devices throughout East Amherst and carries it north under Millersport and into Ransom Creek, said Jeffery Burroughs, the town engineer.
"We're looking to continue its use for our flood mitigation program," Weinstein said.
Weinstein said the town has acquired, or traded for, a number of parcels to set them aside as open space, pointing to a section of the East Amherst Conservation Area and the intended site of the Grammercy Park Estates subdivision.
Town Board members expressed cautious backing for Weinstein's idea.
"Anything that can help flood mitigation in northeast Amherst, I'm in favor of it," said board member Ramona Popowich.
"I think it's a creative solution to a land-use issue," said another member, Deborah Bruch Bucki, "which would also satisfy the neighbors."
As for the residents who have banded together to fight the New Road development, they greeted news of the land offer, even though it was rejected outright, with interest.
"Obviously, it's the path of least resistance," said Paul Boser, a leader of the New Road Family Safety Association.