In the past two days, the developers of a controversial six-story suburban hotel project have gotten everything they wanted – except for good will.
They’ve gotten plan approval. They’ve gotten $1.4 million in tax breaks. As far as the Town of Amherst is concerned, little stands in the way of a spring groundbreaking.
But that’s very likely to change despite Iskalo Development’s plans to begin construction with “due haste.”
Organized neighborhood opponents have already filed – and will continue to file – multiple zoning and legal challenges to hold up the $15 million Hyatt Place development, which would be located behind the Lord Amherst Hotel on the northwest side of the Main Street-Youngmann Highway interchange.
The approval of the tax breaks, which came in a 4-3 vote during an unusually long two-hour Amherst Industrial Development Agency meeting Friday morning, occurred just hours after the Planning Board approved the 137-room hotel project in a 5-2 vote during a lengthy meeting on Thursday night.
“It’s just been completely disheartening,” said Tara Paolini, whose Livingston Parkway home overlooks the hotel site, across a small pond that separates the neighborhood from the Main Street commercial property. “We really have been pushed to no other recourse” but to challenge the project in court, she said following the IDA vote.
Richard Berger, an attorney representing nearby residents, said Thursday night one Zoning Board decision is already under appeal and more legal challenges will be filed next week. Residents also are sending protest letters to Hyatt Hotels officers.
Iskalo Vice President David Chiazza responded, “We firmly believe the reality of what we build there will not be nearly as bad as they think it will be.”
The IDA vote followed a lengthy debate over how the hotel project fits within the town’s development plans and whether the agency should consider the opposition of residents in its decision, or base its ruling solely on whether the project met the agency’s eligibility guidelines.
In the end, the vote was swayed by IDA directors who felt that the decision should be based only on whether the project qualified for incentives under existing policy.
“We are not in charge of zoning. We are not in charge of site planning,” said IDA board member Stuart Shapiro, who cast a pivotal vote in favor of the project, joining board members Edward Stachura, Fredrick A. Vilonen and Carlton N. Block Jr.
Amherst Supervisor Barry Weinstein led the three-member block that voted against the project, questioning whether tax breaks were essential for the project to proceed and noting the opposition of the Amherst Central School District to granting incentives that would cost it more than $400,000 in tax revenue over the next decade.
“Do we need another taxpayer-subsidized hotel? I don’t think we need it,” Weinstein said. “It strikes me that they will do this project whether they get the assistance or not.”
But James J. Allen, the IDA’s executive director, said the eligibility guidelines used by the agency and every other IDA in Erie County do not include a provision to allow IDAs to evaluate projects based on whether they think a development would proceed regardless of whether it receives incentives.
Allen also noted that the project meets the agency’s eligibility criteria, which allows the IDA to grant tax breaks for hotel projects that are located in a town-designated enhancement zone, designed to encourage investment in vacant, dilapidated or under-used buildings.
Four residents who live near the proposed hotel site spoke against the project during a public hearing, arguing that the six-story structure would tower over the neighborhood, reduce the value of their homes and provide Iskalo with unneeded tax incentives that will cost the Amherst schools and local governments more than $1.4 million in tax revenue.
The hotel “is out of context with the rest of the community,” said resident Dave Ray. “If they really want to continue building a project of this scale, they should pay for it themselves and build it without taxpayer funding.”
Stachura, the IDA board member, noted that the property currently generates just $29,712 a year in town, county and school taxes, and that the tax breaks only cover a portion of the expected increase in the taxes generated by the parcel once the hotel is completed. IDA officials estimate that, even with the tax breaks approved Friday, the property will generate $1.7 million in additional school, town and county taxes over the next 10 years.
“That’s money we never had before,” Stachura said. “If nothing happens, there is no increase.”
Iskalo officials said the hotel is expected to create the equivalent of 47 full-time jobs, paying an average salary of about $26,600.
Board member Aaron J. Stanley said he based his vote against the project on the opposition from nearby residents. “Absent the public opposition, I would vote in favor of this project,” he said. “But I believe there is a reason why we listen to public comments. Residents’ voices should be heard on these issues.”
Board member Barbara Nuchereno, who also serves on the Amherst Town Board and voted against the tax breaks, suggested altering the agency’s guidelines to allow the IDA to approve sales and mortgage tax incentives for the project, but not property tax savings. But Vilonen opposed the idea, saying it would involve “changing policy on the run,” and the suggestion quickly lost traction.
On Thursday night, much of the 2½-hour debate before the Planning Board centered on the body of water known as Mike’s Pond. Two separate, licensed land surveyors drew up two different boundaries for the pond.
Iskalo Development’s survey of the pond supported the site plan that it has put before the town. But the residents’ pond survey showed a hooked extension at the end of the pond closest to Main Street that would suggest a disruption of the hotel’s parking layout.
“The place where they intend to build parking spaces is under water,” said Berger, the homeowners’ attorney.
Confusing matters considerably Thursday was the fact that the town’s building commissioner, Thomas Ketchum, sent a memo to the Planning Board Thursday supporting the use of the Mike’s Pond boundaries set forth by Iskalo even though the Town Board unanimously supported a resolution last week rezoning the pond as residential property based on the conflicting residents’ survey.
“I wouldn’t use the property survey of the adjacent property owner [in evaluating a site plan],” Ketchum said. “I would use the property survey of the applicant. It’s the way it’s always done.”
In the end, Planning Board members Robert Gilmour, Dal Giuliani, Michele Johnson, Robert Simmons and Chairman Jonathan O’Rourke voted in favor of the project. Board members Steven Herberger and James Monroe voted against it.
News Staff Reporter Sandra Tan contributed to this report. email: email@example.com