ADVERTISEMENT

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has selected a site in Genesee County as the preferred location for a new national veterans cemetery in Western New York, The Buffalo News has learned.

The VA is working out the details to buy a 132-acre property at Route 77 and Indian Falls Road in the Town of Pembroke, a source familiar with the transaction confirmed.

The department is conducting a required archaeological study of the site, which officials selected over another parcel in Pembroke and vacant commercial property in Lancaster – the only Erie County location among the three finalists.

“It’s a good compromise for all interested parties,” said Carlos M. Benitez, director of the Erie County Veterans Service Agency, citing the Pembroke site’s central location between Buffalo and Rochester.

VA officials declined to identify their preferred location, and they emphasize the department may have to turn to its second option if the site study raises serious issues.

But officials confirmed the department has received an offer to sell from the owner of one of the properties.

“We have been having this fight for eight or nine years,” said Patrick W. Welch, the former director of Daemen College’s Center for Veterans & Veteran Family Services. “We’re just very pleased that it does appear to be coming to a conclusion.”

Veterans groups and elected officials had pushed the VA to establish a national veterans cemetery in Western New York because the closest one now is in Bath, Steuben County, about 100 miles from Buffalo.

The Obama administration in February 2010 announced plans for the new cemetery, with the VA originally looking for 200-acre sites between Buffalo and Rochester.

The cemetery was projected to serve about 100,000 veterans and their families.

The department changed its criteria to include sites of at least 100 acres and those closer to Buffalo, though the cemetery must be located between Transit Road to the west, Route 98 to the east, Route 20A to the south and within 10 miles of the Thruway to the north.

The VA narrowed its search to three sites that were publicly identified last summer:

• The 132-acre parcel in Pembroke, just north of the Pembroke Thruway exit.

• A 123-acre vacant piece of land at Walden Avenue and Pavement Road in Lancaster. This property is owned by Uniland Development Co. and is marketed as the Eastport Commerce Center industrial park.

• A 104-acre vacant parcel, bisected by an electrical easement, at Route 5 and Cleveland Road in Pembroke.

Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., in October announced that the VA had reached an agreement to buy one of the three properties.

Since then, a title search and environmental testing were completed, but an initial cultural-resources examination revealed the need for a more in-depth archaeological survey of this site, according to the VA.

VA spokeswoman Josephine Schuda said this survey, expected to take 45 to 60 days, has been held up because of winter weather and because the department doesn’t want to disrupt farming operations at the selected site.

Schuda said she still could not name this preferred site, but only one of the three finalist properties is used as a working farm, and a source familiar with the cemetery search confirmed its identity.

Schuda pointed out that the offer to sell still could fall through if, for example, the archaeological testing reveals a serious issue. In that case, the department would move on to its second or third options.

Before the property changes hands, the department will release its draft environmental assessment of the site and allow 30 days for public comment on the document.

“The news that the VA has finally chosen a preferred site puts us a step closer to Western New York having its own veterans cemetery, and families won’t have to travel hours to pay respects to loved ones that served our county so well,” Schumer said in an email.

From the time the VA closes on the deal, it would take at least 24 months to develop the site before burials could be held there, and the cemetery will be opened in sections over the years to come, said Benitez, who attended a meeting among the VA and veterans advocates last year.

Veterans representatives said they don’t think surviving relatives will mind driving to a cemetery in Genesee County.

“It’s a heck of a lot closer than Bath,” said Col. Patrick Cunningham, executive director of the Buffalo & Erie County Naval and Military Park. “Pembroke isn’t that far. You can get to Pembroke from just about anywhere in Erie County in 45 minutes.”

email: swatson@buffnews.com