Developer William L. Huntress has won a $3 million jury verdict against the Town of Amherst after a four-week trial in state court.
Huntress sued the Town Board after it voted in 2006 to rescind a previous approval for an office park at 2190 Wehrle Drive.
During the trial, his lawyers argued that the board’s about-face on the project was due to opposition from neighbors and then-Supervisor Satish B. Mohan.
“The jury recognized the naked political conduct of the Town Board,” said Matthew D. Miller, a lawyer for the Rupp, Baase, Pfalzgraf, Cunningham & Coppola firm who represented Huntress and his company, Acquest Development.
Acquest bought the land on Wehrle in 1998 without any knowledge of a 50-year moratorium on the parcel or the $5 million in federal funds the town had received to maintain it as wetlands.
Miller said the town never informed Huntress of the moratorium at the time of his purchase and waited years before alerting him to it. The town had actually lost the moratorium documents, according to Miller.
The town initially agreed to help Huntress seek a waiver of the moratorium but changed its mind in 2006 when the Town Board voted to withdraw that offer.
“They were 99.9 percent of the way to approval when that meeting took place,” Miller said of Acquest’s progress on the office park project.
A series of lawsuits followed in which Huntress accused the town of violating his property rights and his constitutional rights to due process and equal protection.
“They took my property rights away,” Huntress told The Buffalo News in 2006. “It’s like the town taking away the water and sewer lines to your house. But it’s just a matter of time. The town is either going to pay me for my investment, or I’m going to develop the whole thing.”
Town Attorney E. Thomas Jones said Amherst was “disappointed” in the verdict and plans to appeal. “We believe that when we have the court hear it, it will be reversed,” Jones said. “We don’t believe we’ll have to pay anything.”
The town had previously appealed other parts of the case, and the latest appeal will be added to those pending in the Appellate Division of State Supreme Court. That process could drag on into next year, he said. “The issues are pretty fundamental, whether he has a property right to begin with,” Jones said.
Supervisor Barry A. Weinstein, who was not on the Town Board at the time of the dispute, said that “perhaps it’s a reflection of the way the previous Town Board did business in those days.”
Weinstein said he was not worried about the town having to pay the $3 million verdict because he was confident that it will win on appeal. Jones added that the town is “nowhere near” its borrowing limit of more than $300 million.
The verdict is the second legal victory for Huntress in recent months.
In March, a federal judge dismissed a seven-count criminal indictment against the developer because of prosecutorial interference with the grand jury that indicted him.
The indictment centers on Acquest’s development of a 97-acre parcel of land at 10880 Transit Road in Amherst.
Prosecutors contend that Huntress cleared the site in 2008 and, among others things, illegally filled in wetlands and removed trees.
Huntress has countered with his own lawsuit challenging the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and what his lawyers call its “overzealous” handling of Huntress’ case.
Multiple calls to Mohan’s Amherst residence were not returned.