John A. Catsimatidis does not want to be a good neighbor. In fact, he doesn’t want to be neighbors at all with the Town of Amherst or with any of Erie County which, as he recently explained, is dead to him.
The New York City billionaire, who owns dozens of Kwik Fill gas stations and Red Apple convenience stores in this area through his United Refining Co., plans no more investment. It is unfortunate, but that’s his choice and, more important, it is the consequence of his own inaction.
Town official after town official tried working with United Refining, but to no avail. Now they — and the courts — have signaled an end to the town’s entreaties on zombie gas station sites that have become zombie properties.
An appeals court decision last month cleared the way for Amherst to lay claim to a former gas station in Eggertsville, at Niagara Falls Boulevard and Kenmore Avenue. Town officials want to turn what is a prime intersection for the towns of Amherst and Tonawanda and the City of Buffalo into a gateway park. It is certainly a higher use than an ugly, vacant lot bordered by concrete barriers.
Amherst Supervisor Brian J. Kulpa is right to dismiss Catsimatidis’ complaints. Plenty of other developers are involved in major retail and housing projects in the town. Catsimatidis’ decision to cease investing should not cloud the town’s economic development outlook.
It is too bad the situation reached this boiling point. The site at 159 Niagara Falls Blvd. has been in contention for about two decades. Previous administrations stopped short of fully flexing the town’s muscle. In 2015, the Amherst Town Board considered acquiring the property through eminent domain but took no action. It was unclear what a judge would do, so officials backed off.
Kulpa, who took office in 2018, inherited the problem property, which he considered an eyesore. It wasn’t until reporting by The Buffalo News and “prodding” from Sen. Charles Schumer that the company last year vowed to spend at least $250,000 to clean up the properties in Buffalo, Lackawanna, Amherst and the Town of Tonawanda.
It hasn’t happened.
Amherst wanted to take control of the Niagara Falls Boulevard site, while United Refining retained ownership and development rights for the other properties. Negotiations stalled and Kulpa’s administration ventured where others stopped short: The town went to court to seize the property through eminent domain.
United Refining challenged the ruling in the Appellate Division, which ruled in June that the town was well within its rights to claim the property for a public use. United Refining, instead of fighting the ruling, should accept the town’s anticipated resubmitted offer of $81,000 for the parcel. The alternative is to wait for a judge to decide the property’s worth.
Eminent domain is a legitimate government power, but one that it should use sparingly. In this case, it was the right decision. With the ruling, the town is in a position to put the parcel and an adjoining property it bought to public use.
Finally, after decades of trying to move an intransigent developer, municipal officials have the room to elevate a public eyesore into a public benefit. What is more, if the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority extends the Metro Rail out to the University at Buffalo North Campus, the subway could eventually run under that corner.
The days of underutilization and blight at an integral parcel to the economic development of a municipality should soon end with a new, prosperous beginning taking shape.