A long-stalled East Amherst subdivision that pitted neighbor against neighbor received a key approval from the Town Board – after its fiercest critics gave the $40 million plan their blessing.
The Amherst Town Board Monday voted to rezone most of the vacant 57-acre property on New Road, near Millersport Highway, to make way for Natale Builders' planned development of 85 houses.
A core group of residents had fought the project since its unveiling 19 months ago, but Natale in recent months agreed to changes that made the project palatable to its main opponents.
"If you had told me back in February that we'd be approving the project, with the support of the residents, I would have told you you're crazy," said Amherst Supervisor Brian J. Kulpa, who inherited the controversy when he took office in January, after Monday's meeting.
Natale in March 2017 submitted plans to build about 85 single-family houses and patio homes at 284 New Road, on a property marked by green space and surrounded by subdivisions built over the previous three decades.
Some neighbors raised fears about effects on wetlands, drainage, traffic, pedestrian safety and wildlife on the property.
The town's Planning Board in April 2017 recommended rezoning 49 acres of the parcel, but the project stalled as foes organized to block the development. Signs signaling homeowners' opposition to the subdivision sprouted up like dandelions on lawns in the neighborhood.
Residents signed a protest petition – meaning approval of the rezoning would require a supermajority of four votes from the five-member Town Board.
The fight over the development hardened last fall when the owners of the property – Richard and Lynn Jacobs, and Richard's brother, Eric Jacobs – wrote a letter to neighbors defending Natale's plans and accusing opponents of repeatedly breaking into a barn on the New Road site, regularly trespassing at Richard and Lynn’s nearby home and twice throwing eggs onto their property.
The Town Board opened a public hearing on the development in March, but declined to hold a vote in the months that followed.
Natale President Angelo Natale, working with Earl Wells III of E3 Communications and attorney Jeffery Palumbo, went back to the leaders of the New Road opposition to see if they could find middle ground.
Negotiations with Larry Rera, Paul Boser and Richard Nachbar, residents of Gray Birch Court on the edge of the Jacobses' property, led to compromise.
In response to concerns that added traffic in the area would put pedestrians and bicyclists at greater risk, Natale agreed to install a sidewalk on the west side of New Road from Autumn Meadows Lane south to North French Road, about 1 mile in length.
Natale agreed to leave one lot open as a buffer for the Gray Birch Court homes; to shift a road within the development away from a natural pond in a homeowner's backyard, moving more traffic directly onto New Road; and to make changes on the southern edge of the development in an effort to improve drainage along Brockmoore Drive.
Rera said residents figured they were likely to lose their case, either before the Zoning Board of Appeals or in court, and a legal battle was too costly for them to stomach. So, he said, if the site wouldn't stay undeveloped it made more sense to try to work out a compromise with Natale.
Rera, and other former critics, attended Monday's Town Board meeting and said they no longer opposed the project.
"These are contentious things, but they can come to an amicable conclusion, and this one did," Rera said in an interview.
The board ended up closing the public hearing and voting on the rezoning that night. Kulpa said officials and residents discussed the project extensively, so he felt comfortable moving forward with a vote.
The board approved the rezoning, 4-1, with Deborah Bruck Bucki casting the lone no vote, after expressing concern about wetlands on the property.
The project next will go to the Planning Board for site plan approval.
Natale said he wants to start site work in the spring, with construction on houses beginning in the summer or fall next year and taking three or four years to complete.
He said changes to the project have pushed the estimated cost to $40 million to $50 million.
Natale said he considered walking away from the development, but he's glad he found a way to address residents' concerns.
"I think they're satisfied, and we're going to follow through on our promises," Natale said.
Residents put up about 150 anti-development signs at the peak of the fight. Only about 10 remain, Rera said, after he took his down Monday night.