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Editorial: United Refining off to a good start with zombie property cleanups

The United Refining Co. says it wants to be a good neighbor and has promised to fix up five of its former gas station sites that have become zombie properties in Erie County.

They are off to a good start, cleaning up one of their abandoned stations on Ontario Street in Riverside and leasing it to a nearby church. This is a welcome turn of events, and we want to take John Catsimatidis, the billionaire who is United Refining’s chairman, at his word when he says cosmetic improvements will be made at the company’s other four abandoned sites.

The sight of concrete barriers bordering four of the empty gas station lots owned by United has become all too familiar. A former Red Apple station at Niagara Falls Boulevard and Kenmore Avenue in Amherst has come under frequent criticism.

The sight of the gravel and asphalt lot with barriers around it looks more like an old checkpoint into an Eastern European country than something that welcomes motorists to Amherst.

In addition to the Riverside and Amherst sites, United Refining’s other empty lots are in Buffalo, the Town of Tonawanda and Lackawanna, and all are eyesores.

Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-NY, Assemblyman Sean M. Ryan, D-Buffalo, and Amherst Town Supervisor Brian J. Kulpa have all called upon United Refining to do something about these and other properties, including a former Mobil and Sunoco in Lackawanna where Schumer held a news conference last month. That site, at Abbott and Ridge roads, is owned by Sunoco Retail.

In Amherst, the town board in May voted to use eminent domain to try to take over the property on the boulevard. Kulpa said last week he is still not satisfied with United Refining’s plans for the site and once again held out the possibility of employing eminent domain, which allows a municipality to buy private property at market rate if it will be put to public use. Kulpa is wise to keep that “nuclear” option open, but it will be better for all if he doesn’t have to use it.

Indeed, Catsimatidis defends his rights as a business owner to control his properties and vows to contest any eminent domain takeover in court.

“They better have a couple million dollars to spend to go to the Supreme Court,” Catsimatidis told The News.

Those are fighting words, but the chairman sounds genuine when he vows to continue “the beautification process” at his other four abandoned stations. Officials in the affected towns are advised to keep in mind the old saying: “Trust but verify.”

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