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Amazon gives Grand Island 10 million reasons to say yes

Amazon gives Grand Island 10 million reasons to say yes

Project Olive

Opposition to development projects in Western New York are common.

Amazon has lifted the “pause” on its Grand Island megaproject and has sweetened the deal for the town by an extra $10 million.

The Town Board on Monday plans to resume its review of a proposal to build one of the world's largest warehouses on a swath of former farmland – two weeks after the developer put the project on hold.

And Grand Island officials now will weigh Amazon’s offer to help pay for a new community center and other amenities, in exchange for the town's approval of the $300 million-plus, 3.8 million-square-foot complex.

“I’m thrilled,” said Eric Fiebelkorn, president of the Grand Island Chamber of Commerce. “I haven’t heard anybody get $10 million out of Amazon.”

The proposed payment sparked a mixed reaction after The Buffalo News reported on it Friday.

“You tell me, is $10 million adequate? Not on your life,” said Cathy Rayhill, co-founder of an anti-Amazon coalition.

The Town Board isn’t likely to act Monday on the controversial project, which has drawn criticism that it doesn’t fit on the island and praise that the 1,000 promised jobs will boost the region’s economy.

But board members could set a public hearing for later this month that would pave the way for future up-or-down votes to settle the issue.

Other recent developments include:

  • The five Town Board members who control the project’s fate are not yet saying publicly how they will vote.
  • The town's Conservation Advisory Board found the project would significantly harm the environment and urged the Town Board not to rezone the site.
  • Project opponents plan to protest outside Town Hall prior to Monday’s Town Board meeting.
  • The developer is offering to set aside a neighboring plot as a buffer and has offered to buy out at least one adjoining homeowner.

Payment for amenities

Amazon would pay the money into a trust fund after and only if the e-commerce giant gets the approval it seeks, according to the filing by developer Trammell Crow.

The developer suggested the town use the money for road and utility improvements and to help pay for a new community center and enhancements to the Grand Island Bike Trail.

Grand Island Supervisor John Whitney, reached late Thursday, said he was out of town and had not yet seen Amazon's offer.

Councilman Thomas Digati said the $10 million is above and beyond any money the developer would spend to improve bridges, the Interstate-190 or surface roads directly tied to what's also known as Project Olive.

And any payment toward town amenities is separate from tax revenue the town would receive. The developer has estimated the project would produce $51 million in those payments over the first 15 years, with $9.6 million going to the town.

Trammell Crow wants the property rezoned to a planned development district to make it easier to proceed with elements that don't conform to the existing zoning, such as the building height and setback, the number of parking spaces and the height of light poles on the site.

Under town code, the rezoning is considered an incentive and Grand Island can require the developer in return to pay for public spaces, parkland, roads, utilities and other town priorities.

Amazon would make the first payment when construction starts, the second payment one year after the start of construction and the final payment after the town issues a certificate of occupancy.

“It’s nice, but it certainly doesn’t make it a done deal,” Digati said of the offer.

‘Pause’ is lifted

About two weeks ago, the developer called the town supervisor hours before the July 20 Town Board meeting to say it would not show up to pitch its plans and that the project was “on pause.”

Now the project is back on Monday’s agenda. Whitney said he expects the board will set a hearing for Aug. 13 at Town Hall and the public will be able to participate in person and virtually.

Critics of the project, and some Town Board members, have sought a return to in-person public meetings before the board acts on the plan. Rayhill, for her part, is frustrated by the three-minute limit for public speakers that does not apply to the developer’s representatives.

Once the Town Board closes the public hearing, it could vote on the project’s environmental effects and the requested rezoning as soon as its Aug. 17 meeting.

It’s not clear how the vote will go.

Whitney, Digati, Councilman Peter Marston and Councilwoman Jennifer Baney all said in recent interviews that they haven’t made up their minds and they want to hear more from the developer and residents. The fifth member of the all-Republican board, Councilman Michael Madigan, has not responded to messages seeking comment.

“I’m really trying to go down every rabbit hole to come up with facts, and we’ll make a factual decision,” Marston said.

Advisory boards weigh in

The town’s Conservation Advisory Board has taken the strongest position yet against the project.

The board on July 23 voted 9-0 to say the project would have “obvious significant negative impacts” on air quality, noise levels, wildlife and the natural environment and doesn’t align with Grand Island’s comprehensive plan. The board also urged the Town Board to reject the rezoning request.

This comes after the town Planning Board by a narrow, 3-2 vote on July 13 also recommended the Town Board reject the rezoning.

However, some officials have said four of seven Planning Board members needed to vote no, or yes, on the motion for it to have formal effect.

A member of the town’s Long Range Planning Committee has urged support for the project. The site is targeted for development but critics object to the scale of Amazon’s proposal.

Project inspires protests

A coalition of project opponents planned to meet in person Friday evening to strategize and to show up outside Town Hall before Monday’s meeting.

Critics also protested outside a recent news conference where Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz touted the project’s economic benefits.

One protester was Simon Husted, who worked as a warehouse associate at Amazon’s sortation facility in Lancaster for seven weeks in 2017.

He said Amazon facilities should be easier to access for workers who rely on public transit and communities should not throw tax breaks at the trillion-dollar corporation.

“It’s a balancing act, of course, but I think we give Amazon too much power,” Husted said.

Amazon is attempting to appease island residents. It has pledged to buy a neighboring, 62-acre parcel that it would leave undeveloped as a buffer for the project site.

And the developer has offered to buy at least one adjoining home along Long Road, though not the house a short distance down the road owned by Baney, the Town Board member.

“They have not reached out to me, nor I to them, because I have no interest in selling,” she said.

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