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Produce market that straddles Williamsville-Amherst border is in a pickle

When Michael Pope sells his sweet corn, zucchini and cherries in Williamsville, everything is fine.

But when Pope tries to sell produce on the Amherst side of his land, he's breaking the law.

Pope said he had no idea – not when he bought the two adjoining parcels at Wehrle and Aero drives last year, nor when he reopened George's Produce Market at its new location this year – that zoning was an issue until the town warned him in late spring. Amherst officials later threatened him with closure.

Now Pope has moved to the Williamsville side of the property and he's hired an attorney to help him get temporary permission from the town to operate again on the small portion in Amherst.

"It's ridiculous," Pope said in an interview Monday. "It's just a nice thing for the community."

Michael Pope's grandfather, George, opened the market in 1958 with his son, Donald, who was 9. It operated for nearly 60 years from the corner of Main Street and North Forest Road in Amherst just outside the Williamsville village limits. The parcels at 5226 and 5228 Main St. sit between a KeyBank branch and a Wendy's today.

Donald Pope died in 2015. Michael Pope kept running the stand at that prime Main Street location but sold the properties last year to Ellicott Development Co. after saying rising property values made it too expensive to stay there.

George's Produce Market to move as family sells Amherst land

Pope bought adjoining properties at 1187 and 1195 Wehrle Drive, near the Buffalo Niagara International Airport, with plans to open at the new location in the spring.

The market begins each year around Mother's Day selling flowers and hanging baskets, followed by seasonal fruits and vegetables that Pope brings in from local farmers through the fall. It's a small operation right now, Pope said, with just him and his mother, Heather, at the stand on Wehrle selling corn, beans and other early-summer produce.

Pope said he didn't realize until around February that the east side of both parcels is in Williamsville and the other, far-smaller portion is in the town. And he said he didn't learn until after he opened this year that both sides of the parcels have different zoning.

The Williamsville side is zoned for light manufacturing, which allows retail sales, but the Amherst side is zoned for research and development, which doesn't allow retail as its primary use, said Doug Gesel, supervising code enforcement officer for the town. It's in a primarily commercial area, however, Gesel said.

Pope said someone from the town told him about the issue and he was advised to seek a use variance from town Zoning Board of Appeals. The Amherst portion accounts for 14 percent of the two combined parcels.

But Pope said he mixed up what night the Zoning Board meets and missed the session. The Zoning Board in Pope's absence voted down his request for a use variance.

The day after that that hearing last month, the town's Building Department issued Pope a cease-and-desist notice.

"I was just thinking, 'Here we go,' " Pope said.

Pope then hired Sean Hopkins, an attorney with a busy practice in land-use matters, who filed an application for a temporary use permit from the Zoning Board. Hopkins said the temporary permit, which the board will consider next week, would buy Pope time to seek a permanent solution: a zoning change from the Amherst Town Board.

In the meantime, out of an abundance of caution, Pope has moved his stand over to the Williamsville side until everything is resolved. And he's working with the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority, which owns land that surrounds the Amherst side of the market property and has complained about customer parking on that site.

An exasperated Pope said he's trying to leave the technical details to his attorney but looks for a resolution soon so he can operate his "small roadside stand" without violating the law.

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