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Editorial: Haul out the big guns to fight zombie properties

It’s long past time for Amherst and other municipalities to move against the zombie properties that blight their streets and neighborhoods. If the owners of these plots don’t care enough about their responsibilities to their neighbors, then it’s the town’s responsibility to explain things to them. Eminent domain might make for a good explainer.

We’re mainly talking here about abandoned business locations, rather than homes, although residences pose their own set of problems. Amherst, for example, has been frustrated for nearly two decades by a former Red Apple gas station at Kenmore Avenue and Niagara Falls Boulevard. The property, which is owned by United Refining Co., is now an empty lot conspicuously blocked off by unsightly concrete barriers.

It’s a prime location, at the entrance to the town near the Buffalo city limit, and it doesn’t make for much of a welcome mat. Indeed, its only purpose these days is as a warning: This can happen in your town unless there are laws to prevent it and public officials who are willing to take action.

Now Amherst officials, after years of threatening it, appear to be serious about trying to claim the land through eminent domain. It’s a strategy that is both appealing, in that it forces the issue, but also sensitive, given that it seeks to acquire property because the town disapproves of the owner’s use of it.

The power of eminent domain allows a municipality to buy private property at market rate if it is going to be put to public use. The town is considering that possibility while also purchasing a shuttered hair salon on adjacent land.

With the combined properties, the town would like to partner with private interests to redevelop most of the site, incorporating a pocket park, welcoming signs and an off-road bus shelter for public transit riders, said Amherst Supervisor Brian J. Kulpa.

The gravel and asphalt lot in Amherst isn’t the only such location in Erie County. United Refining, which also operates Kwik Fill stations, has littered the county with five vacant lots. In Lackawanna, Mayor Geoffrey M. Szymanski is frustrated by a boarded-up former Mobil and Sunoco station at a prominent intersection.

“It just looks like a haunted shack,” he said. “It seems to fall into a commercial version of a zombie property.”

It’s an apt description.

United Refining has offered to replace the concrete barriers in Amherst with something more attractive and to give the town a rolling lease that would let it spruce up the site and post a “Welcome” sign, all while maintaining ownership.

The company says it holds onto its unused properties so that competitors can’t set up shop on them, but that’s a solution looking for a problem: If United Refining isn’t there, it’s not competing, anyway. And, in any case, it could sell to someone else. Either way, the company’s fears of competition can’t be an acceptable reason for the neighborhood and the town to tolerate a never-ending eyesore.

United Refining hasn’t commented publicly on the threat of eminent domain, but it should consider an alternative: Instead of fighting that battle – a loser in the court of public opinions – it might do better to remove the barriers and beautify the site, itself. Call it institutional pride. Call it corporate citizenship. Call it a way to avoid an unwanted public spotlight.

It would be a shame if eminent domain were required to remove the blight that United Refining maintains at a gateway to the town, but if the company can’t make this right, then the town should proceed.

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