United Refining Co. promises to fix up five former gas station properties it owns in Erie County that have drawn the ire of local and state officials.
John Catsimatidis, the chairman of the board, said Wednesday that United Refining started by cleaning up its former gas station in Riverside, a property the company plans to lease to a nearby church. The company over the next six months will perform similar maintenance at its other locations in Buffalo, Lackawanna, Amherst and in the Town of Tonawanda.
"United Refining wants to be a good neighbor throughout Western New York," Catsimatidis, a New York City-based billionaire, said in a statement.
The move comes 2½ months after The Buffalo News reported on the concerns elected officials have about the condition of some of the United Refining properties.
United Refining has extensive holdings in Erie County, including a refinery on River Road in Tonawanda and 25 Kwik Fill gas stations.
Public records show that United Refining owns five vacant properties in Erie County that once operated as Red Apple or Kwik Fill gas stations. The stations closed between 1998 and 2009 and United Refining has removed their underground storage tanks.
The lots are covered in gravel or grass and four of the five are lined by concrete barriers.
Amherst Supervisor Brian J. Kulpa and Assemblyman Sean Ryan, D-Buffalo, are among the officials frustrated by how long United Refining has held onto the properties and by how they look to people who live and work in the surrounding neighborhoods.
Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., last month held a news conference at a former Mobil and Sunoco in Lackawanna to blast the owner of that property as well as United Refining for their stewardship of the sites.
United Refining officials previously said they are willing to hold onto the properties for a long time until the right redevelopment or purchase offer comes along, and they confirmed they often retain the sites to keep them out of the hands of competitors.
Amherst officials were so frustrated that the Town Board in May voted to try to take over the property at the corner of Niagara Falls Boulevard and Kenmore Avenue through eminent domain.
In response to the criticism, United Refining said through the end of this year it would clean up the Amherst location and the other four lots. The company said it began this "beautification process" at 422 Ontario St., where it has arranged for trash removal, snow clearing and mowing.
United Refining said the Assemblies of Christian Churches, at 213 Ontario, would lease the property for July and August.
Pastor Juan Rivera said the church plans a tent revival at the site as well as a day of activities meant to appeal to children from the nearby Shaffer Village housing complex. Rivera said United Refining isn't charging rent in exchange for church members keeping up the property.
United Refining then will move to address the other four sites, laying down topsoil and grass and working with local officials on landscaping improvements and the placement of benches. However, the company said concrete barriers would stay in place to keep abandoned vehicles and trash off the properties.
Kulpa, the Amherst supervisor, said he is not fully satisfied. The town plans to buy a neighboring parcel that surrounds the United Refining site in Eggertsville, and envisions using both to create a place where buses can drop off and pick up passengers, and where riders can wait in comfort, along with a pocket park.
"We have a public need," Kulpa said, and the United Refining plan doesn't go far enough in meeting that need.
Kulpa said Amherst for now will continue to pursue eminent domain. He also said the company hadn't returned five phone calls from town officials since January, but on Wednesday the town attorney ended up talking to United Refining's general counsel and the company appears willing to open the site up for public use.
The company has objected to the use of eminent domain, and Catsimatidis said in an interview that it's a matter of protecting his rights as a business owner. He said the company pays all of its property taxes on the sites and is willing to turn them into parks.
"We're going to fight it to the Supreme Court, if necessary," Catsimatidis said, adding, "They better have a couple million dollars to spend to go to the Supreme Court."