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NYC billionaire's offer for 'zombie' property is too little, too late for Amherst

John A. Catsimatidis is a billionaire investor and radio talk show host in New York City who owns supermarkets, gas stations, convenience stores, an oil refinery and valuable real estate.

So why does he care so much about a quarter-acre piece of vacant land in Eggertsville? And why has he spent the last 18 months battling the Amherst town government over a parcel worth $81,000?

Catsimatidis says he's taking a stand on behalf of all property owners.

"Maybe I'm the only one that's willing to speak up," he said in a meeting this week with The Buffalo News editorial board.

Catsimatidis has taken Amherst to court to try to block the town's bid to take over the property – the site of a former gas station that closed 20 years ago – through eminent domain.

He lost, so he's making a final Hail Mary offer: He'll let the town build a park on the parcel, and he'll pay for a bus shelter and turn lane, but Catsimatidis would retain control of the property.

The town says this offer is too little, too late. Amherst Supervisor Brian J. Kulpa wants to turn the property – located where Amherst, Tonawanda and Buffalo meet – into a gateway park and transportation hub.

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Kulpa said officials for years have tried to get Catsimatidis and his company to clear the eyesore property, without success.

"We asked him up front, my question to them was, 'Are you going to develop?' And we got nothing in response," Kulpa said. "So then we said, 'OK, we're going to do something now.' "

The site at 159 Niagara Falls Blvd., at Kenmore Avenue, has annoyed Amherst officials since a Red Apple gas station and convenience store closed there in the late 1990s.

The store and gas pumps were removed, leaving behind a gravel and asphalt lot surrounded by concrete barriers that draws in the occasional shopping cart.

Catsimatidis' United Refining Co. owned at least four other former "zombie" gas stations in the area. Following articles in The News and prodding from Sen. Charles Schumer, 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.

However, while United Refining retained ownership and development rights for the other properties, Amherst wanted control of the Niagara Falls Boulevard site.

Negotiations stalled, and Amherst went to court to seize the property through eminent domain. United Refining filed a challenge in the Appellate Division's Fourth Department, which heard the case in January.

The town won, and Catsimatidis can't appeal the decision – "We're toast," he conceded. The case is back in State Supreme Court to determine the price Amherst will pay for the 0.22-acre property. The town has offered $81,000, the appraised value.

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The town proposes building a passive park with a bus shelter and bus turning lane on 159 Niagara Falls Blvd. and a neighboring property, 143 Kenmore Ave., that the town bought in August 2018. Kulpa, who has focused attention on Eggertsville since taking office last year, envisions hosting a farmers' market on the site.

Catsimatidis said he had no idea the property was a problem for town officials until The News and Schumer raised the issue. He's now taken a personal interest in the property and vows to fix it up while rejecting any suggestion he sell the site.

"The Town of Amherst has 41 parks. They need 42?" Catsimatidis said.

Catsimatidis said he's tried for more than a year to set up a meeting with Kulpa, to no avail. Kulpa said he's been more than willing to meet with Catsimatidis and called him once on his cellphone but never heard back.

He said Catsimatidis could have reached out to him anytime during his visit to this area Tuesday, and he questioned Catsimatidis' motives.

Catsimatidis is a major Republican figure in New York City and his local representative, Brian D. Rusk, is the Amherst Republican chairman. Catsimatidis has urged Amherst residents to vote Kulpa and other Town Board members, currently all Democrats, out of office.

"Stop with the political games," Kulpa said.

Catsimatidis said the property means little to him from a business perspective but he has tried so hard to hold onto it because he believes the use of eminent domain is unfair.

He lashed out at the town this past summer after losing his court challenge, telling a News reporter he would never invest another cent in Erie County because of how he's been treated.

"It was quite upsetting. If they can use eminent domain against me, they can use it on anybody," he said.

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Kulpa, for his part, said the town considers using eminent domain only in cases where owners have for years neglected a property that can serve a higher public purpose.

A judge could issue the final order on how much Catsimatidis must accept for the property by the end of the year. The town has started demolishing the building on 143 Kenmore and would start work on the park in the spring, Kulpa said.

Catsimatidis said he planned to formally offer to buy the property at 143 Kenmore from the town and to let the town build a park on the combined site.

But he and United Refining would hold onto the site, continue to pay property taxes on it and, down the road, possibly redevelop it.

Why not just sell the land to the town and move on?

"As a taxpayer, as an American citizen, when you're forced to do it against your will, it's wrong," Catsimatidis said.

Kulpa said he would bring the proposal to the Town Board, but he's skeptical about Catsimatidis' last-ditch offer. He said Catsimatidis had a chance to buy 143 Kenmore but never did.

He also said he doesn't want to build a park at the site only to see Catsimatidis tear it down after several years to make way for a gas station.

"I'm leery of giving more property to somebody who's been a bad actor," Kulpa said, "and building a five-year park."

 

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