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Little has changed at 'eyesore' gas station now owned by Amherst

Little has changed at 'eyesore' gas station now owned by Amherst

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LOCAL Zombie Gas Station Site HICKEY (copy)

Blaming delays on Covid-19 and the need for final state approvals, Amherst Supervisor Brian J. Kulpa said construction should start this fall on the town's plan to transform the gravel-covered lot at the corner of Niagara Falls Boulevard and Kenmore Avenue into a gateway park. Little work has taken place at the site since the town acquired it through eminent domain, aside from four wooden benches replacing concrete barriers.

Amherst's "zombie" gas station is still more dead than alive these days.

The town, after taking over the property in Eggertsville through the eminent domain process, last year replaced the concrete barriers that surrounded the site with a few wooden benches and added a garbage tote.

But not much else has happened at the site, which remains at the center of a long-running dispute between the town and the New York City billionaire who previously controlled the property. 

Blaming delays on Covid-19 and the need for final state approvals, Supervisor Brian J. Kulpa said construction should start this fall on the town's plan to transform the gravel-covered lot into a gateway park for southwest Amherst.

"I want it to be a finished park, but there's a lot out of my control," Kulpa said Saturday.

Former owner John A. Catsimatidis has blasted the town for taking the property from him, and he's vowed to help defeat Kulpa and other Amherst lawmakers running for re-election this fall.

"What have they done with the property?" Catsimatidis said in an interview. "People tell me it looks worse than when we had it."

Town officials for years have lamented the "eyesore" property at the corner of Niagara Falls Boulevard and Kenmore Avenue in Eggertsville, home to a Red Apple gas station and convenience store that closed in the late 1990s.

Catsimatidis' United Refining Co. removed the underground gas storage tanks and razed the site but otherwise left it unused, with neighbors complaining about un-mowed grass and the occasional discarded shopping cart.

Kulpa, who took office in 2018, said the property desperately needed an upgrade, given its position as an entry point into Amherst. United Refining agreed to let the town fix up the property, but only if the company retained ownership, a condition Amherst rejected.

Amherst, over Catsimatidis' objections, filed to take control of the property through eminent domain, arguing there was a public purpose in overhauling the property. Catsimatidis lost his court challenge and the town in summer 2020 took ownership of the land.

Kulpa unveiled plans for a gateway park on this parcel and a nearby property that the town purchased in 2018. But little activity has taken place on the property, aside from the removal of the concrete barriers and a weekly pop-up market hosted by the town over several Saturdays in February.

"I don't know what the right thing is there," said Kandie Napier, a neighbor and customer of the Red Apple who would like to see the site returned to the tax rolls. "It's just better if they could sell the lot to someone for a commercial purpose."

Other neighbors said they welcomed Amherst's plans to improve the property.

"I'm very glad the town took it over," said Nadia Nigrin. "It was deserted. It was neglected. Rats would flourish."

Nigrin and other neighbors have followed the slow-moving planning process.

"I'm not sure what's holding things up," said Richard Adams, who prefers a park to commercial redevelopment, such as the drug store with a drive-through proposed some years ago.

Kulpa said the town was required to test the top layer of fill at the site, an analysis recently completed without revealing any concerns and approved by state environmental regulators. Amherst has received a state grant to pay for improvements to the site, but needed to take some additional procedural steps before it could put the work out to bid, something that should happen by August, the supervisor said.

The town also had to update its plans because an original Amherst welcome sign proposed for the site was in violation of the town's zoning code.

"That's not holding us up at the moment," Kulpa said.

The supervisor said courtroom closings driven by the Covid-19 pandemic have delayed a final judgment on how much Amherst must pay Catsimatidis for the property. The town has offered $81,000 for the parcel, which has a full market value of $35,200, according to the town Assessor's Office.

Catsimatidis said an appraisal puts the value at $250,000, an amount he's willing to accept and donate to charities throughout Erie County – "except Amherst" – to end the dispute.

He has sharply criticized Kulpa, occasionally in vulgar terms, and most recently told The Buffalo News in vivid language that he believes the supervisor sought control of the property to prove his manhood. Kulpa has declined to respond in kind.

The dispute may play out in November's election. Catsimatidis, a major GOP donor in the state, has contributed $5,000 to the committee charged with electing Republicans in Amherst.

”It’s not personal, but he was really poorly represented by a person with political motivation,” Kulpa said, referring to Brian D. Rusk, Catsimatidis’ local point person and chairman of the Amherst Republican Committee. “Every other business person in town, or from out of the area, has not had a problem working with me.”

Catsimatidis, who owns a supermarket chain and hosts a radio show in addition to his oil refining company, has a fortune estimated at $2.8 billion. He describes his fight over the small gas station property as a matter of principle.

"I think it's the right thing to do, to prove a point," he said. "It's not personal."

The Buffalo News: Good Morning, Buffalo

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