Temporary as it may be, opponents of a six-story Amherst hotel got their first big victory Wednesday in a long fight to stop the controversial project.
The ruling by a State Supreme Court justice halts construction on the Hyatt Place on Main Street and will stop backhoes from tearing up more land for at least a month.
Justice John L. Michalski’s decision also marks the first big win for a well-organized neighborhood group that has slowly turned the tide on a project that once looked like a done deal.
“It’s a fair fight for the first time, and it feels mighty good,” said Michele F. Marconi, who organized the residents.
Marconi and others have mounted a furious battle against the $15 million project using a variety of strategies.
First, they whipped up passions around the issue with monthly protests in front of Town Hall. Then they filed three lawsuits against the project and worked the back channels at Town Hall – eventually forcing the resignation of a key Zoning Board official.
They also put political pressure on both candidates running for supervisor – both of whom say they are now clearly on the residents’ side.
If that wasn’t enough, the residents poured more than $12,000 into the upcoming election and have even enlisted a Los Angeles public relations firm to get out their message.
Once dismissed as just another “Not In My Backyard” group, the Livingston Parkway Association of neighbors may have proved Wednesday that it not only is getting attention, but results.
“I feel like we finally got someone to hear us,” said resident Karen J. Butler, who lives behind the hotel site. “It’s been way too long.”
The group has been opposing the $15 million hotel since it was approved by the town last year. Members say that the developers are essentially shoehorning a huge hotel into a residential area and that the hotel project would invade their privacy and drive down property values.
Iskalo Development executives dispute that contention, pointing out that the area they want to turn into a “hospitality campus” behind the Lord Amherst hotel was already zoned for commercial use.
The project was granted multiple zoning variances – including for a key height restriction – and also received $2 million in tax breaks from the town’s Industrial Development Agency.
Town leaders originally tried to wash their hands of the project, pointing to the Zoning and Planning boards’ decisions they said were out of their control.
But they have taken a more active role ever since the project has become more controversial during an election season.
The resident group has funded a large part of Council Member Mark A. Manna’s campaign, donating more than $15,000 after Manna told them he was on their side.
Supervisor Barry A. Weinstein, once largely mum on the issue, has now positioned himself as an ally of the residents, speaking in their favor Tuesday night in opposition to the hotel.
The presence of the neighbors at every turn, dressed in their red shirts and “No No Iskalo” signs, appears to have worked, they say.
The biggest thorn in Iskalo’s side appears to be Marconi, who has made provocative comments but has also framed the issue in the larger context of Amherst, which she said is “run by developers” instead of citizens.
Marconi, now retired, worked in real estate finance and development for years and has applied that knowledge to her fight against the project.
“I may not be the average Snyder housewife,” she said.
She has been bolstered by her fellow neighbors, many of them wealthy, who have made a dogged effort to challenge the town’s approvals on all fronts.
Their persistence has raised eyebrows around town and has even caused other resident groups with projects near them to seek their advice.
Michalski ordered site-clearing and foundation work along Interstate 290 to stop until Aug. 20, when two of the lawsuits are argued by both parties.
Executives at Iskalo were visibly surprised after Michalski’s ruling went against them. But they were quick to add that the victory for the neighbors is by no means permanent.
“At best, for project opponents, this is a temporary reprieve,” said David Chiazza, a vice president of the company.
“We’re going to do what we can to correct what we think is a wrong.”
He declined to comment further.
Attorney Richard G. Berger, who is representing the residents, say they may have even more weapons in their arsenal.
The third lawsuit, to be argued in September, deals with the two-story height restriction that was given a variance by the Zoning Board.
A reversal of that variance – and a return to the two-story limit – could be a fatal blow for the six-story project.
“When you get even a minor victory like this in court,” Berger said, “it becomes very significant to understanding that a project is flawed.”
Chiazza said that the ruling in favor of the residents was “surprising,” but Marconi predicted that it wouldn’t be the last victory they see.
“This is clearly by no means over,” she said.