A lawsuit that has delayed the Muir Woods development in Amherst for five years has been dismissed, paving the way for the construction of one of the largest developments in the town after years of contention.
If all goes as planned, the exits off the I-990 and John James Audubon Parkway that are currently “roads to nowhere” will be filled in with more than 700,000 square feet of research and office space and a variety of housing over the next 10 years.
“We’re looking at a vibrant new neighborhood that’s mixed-use and has energy to it,” said Dennis Penman, executive vice president with Ciminelli Real Estate Corp. “That energy will be driven by the university.”
Ciminelli purchased 326 acres of land just off the Lockport Expressway in 2000, with initial plans to develop about half of that property into a huge office and research complex, with housing, interconnecting roads and a lakefront village center with retail and public boardwalks.
But opposition from hundreds of residents, scrutiny from environmental advocates and state officials, and a series of environmental studies that showed expanding wetlands on the property, forced the company to scale back its vision.
Prior to the construction of the University at Buffalo North Campus, this land was designed by the state as part of a “New Community Development” that was to foster partnerships between UB and private companies and research groups. When that did not pan out as quickly as hoped, the state sold the property to Ciminelli.
The developer had great difficulty getting buy-in on its grand vision.
“At one point, we were meeting with neighbors every Saturday at the library,” said Sean Hopkins, the lawyer who has represented the project on behalf of Ciminelli Real Estate since the start.
In 2007, the Town Board finally approved a land-use change that gave Ciminelli the go-ahead on revised plans to develop 110 acres and construct 700,000 square feet of research and commercial office space. The remaining acreage would be preserved as green space.
Residents sued the town and the developer in 2008 to halt the project. After five years, State Supreme Court Justice John M. Curran rejected six legal arguments against the project and dismissed the lawsuit Feb. 5, giving Ciminelli the green light to proceed with its plans.
“We’re pleased with the decision,” said Hopkins said. “We believe the court did a very diligent job reviewing all the lengthy reports and studies included in the record.”
Hopkins attributed the long delay between the suit’s filing and the judge’s decision to the “boxes and boxes of documents” that had to be reviewed by all parties and that former Amherst Council Member Daniel Ward had joined with homeowners in their suit against Ciminelli and the town.
It took more than two years to get Ward removed as a petitioner on the grounds that he didn’t have standing to challenge the Town Board’s decision, Hopkins said. An appeals court finally removed Ward from the suit in 2010.
Judy Colton, president of the Northwest Amherst Residents Association, said she believes the judge’s decision is a bad one but added that her group has not yet decided whether to appeal the court’s decision.
Ciminelli representatives said they plan to move forward with the project and would be surprised if an appeal is successful.
In fact, Penman said he hopes planning for the project will eventually pair with plans to develop the town-owned Audubon Golf Course, assuming that negotiations regarding a swap of the Audubon course for the Westwood Country Club are successful.
Preliminary site plans should be before the town’s Planning Department by late this year, Penman said. In the meantime, the company will negotiate with the state Department of Transportation on access to the parcel, which is situated just north of the I-990 and south of North French Road.
He said the company generally intends to move forward with the downsized plans presented to the Town Board in 2007, though there may be some adjustments.
Aside from research and office space, some of the area may be devoted to the construction of multifamily, university-oriented housing geared toward graduate students, faculty and alumni, Penman said.
Prior plans to develop 136 units of single-family and patio homes are expected to remain intact, he said.
Construction could begin as early as 2014, he said, though it would take up to 10 years to fully develop the property.