A State Supreme Court justice has ruled that Acquest developer William L. Huntress can move forward with his lawsuit contending that the Town of Amherst illegally interfered with his ability to develop property on Wehrle Drive.
Huntress was branded a "tree killer" by neighbors and a lawbreaker by town and federal Environmental Protection Agency officials for removing thousands of trees on the 26-acre property without permission.
The lawsuit, however, refers to actions taken by the Town Board prior to these activities. It is one of five outstanding suits - four civil and one criminal - involving Huntress and his Amherst properties.
In a decision issued by State Supreme Court Justice John A. Michalek last week, Huntress has grounds to move forward to trial regarding his contention that the town illegally interfered with his ability to develop the site and essentially robbed him of his rights as a property owner.
"[Michalek's findings] are finally a recognition of some court that there are not only legitimate, but actual, reasons why Acquest was significantly wronged," said Matthew D. Miller, a lawyer for Huntress.
Michalek's decision stems from a case dating back to a suit filed in 2006 by Huntress in federal court, where Huntress contended that his Wehrle properties were unconstitutionally taken from him and rendered not developable by town and federal officials. The case was dismissed on procedural grounds in 2009.
Huntress then filed a revised and expanded version of the suit in State Supreme Court six months later against the Town of Amherst and individual Town Board members.
Huntress had bought two adjacent parcels of land on Wehrle in 1997, when both he and town officials were unaware of a 50-year moratorium dating from 1983 that prevented prospective developers along the stretch of Wehrle from tapping into the sewer line.
The town initially agreed to help Huntress seek a waiver from the EPA to let him build an office park on the property but changed its mind in 2006. Many lawsuits followed. Huntress is now battling suits for the Wehrle property and a parcel at Millersport Highway and Transit Road.
Regarding the 2009 lawsuit that Michalek ruled on last week, the judge dismissed five of nine contentions by Huntress.
“What remains are 95 percent of our causes of action that have teeth,” Miller said.
They include contentions that the town took his property without just compensation, violated his rights to due process and did not give his company equal treatment to others who were allowed to tap into the Wehrle sewer line prior to his request.
Michalek said Huntress has grounds to sue former Supervisor Satish B. Mohan and former Council Member Daniel J. Ward personally for punitive damages.
Deputy Town Attorney Alan P. McCracken said the town is glad the judge dismissed five of Huntress' contentions. Both he and Supervisor Barry A. Weinstein said the town will likely appeal the rest of the decision. A trial scheduled for next week has been postponed.
The EPA has two pending lawsuits against Huntress regarding alleged wetlands violations at both the Wehrle and Millersport properties. The U.S. Department of Justice also has indicted Huntress on alleged Clean Water Act violations.
In response, Huntress has sued the EPA and six federal officials, accusing them of conducting a “vindictive, spurious, retaliatory and overzealous prosecution” that led to the criminal charges against him.