After a thoughtful and at times intense discussion, the East Aurora Village Board dismissed pleas from a restaurateur and unanimously approved protective historic landmark designation for his two controversial Main Street houses, including the one Irving Price lived in when he helped found Fisher-Price toy company.
In the end it was public passion for the authentically old looking houses on a central part of Main that trumped restaurateur Gene Wachala’s desire to have freedom to tear down the ailing 19th century homes, build a new building and create more parking for Pasquale’s across the street.
“That’s why people love it here,” said Trustee Peter Mercurio of the old-fashioned look of the village as he spoke at the Monday night meeting. “I think tearing down these buildings would be a move toward losing what sets us apart.”
The vote for both houses was six in favor with one abstention. Trustee Ernie Scheer, an early advocate of preservation, recused himself after Wachala’s attorney suggested he and Patrick Shea had unfairly made up their minds before they’d heard all sides.
“I don’t want anyone to assume there’s any impropriety,” Scheer said.
Shea maintained he had carefully deliberated throughout the process. “I don’t think I need to recuse myself,” he said.
The debate about the Price house and its neighbor started earlier this year when Wachala talked about his wish for more parking in place of the houses. In response, the village Historic Preservation Commission held a public hearing and recommended landmark status, which would help protect against demolition. While Wachala still has a pending demolition permit, the board’s Monday night vote signaled its interest in keeping the houses intact.
Before the vote, Wachala offered the story behind his plan. For half of the 30 years he has run his Italian restaurant on Main, he has struggled to find enough parking for employees and patrons.
He bought the Price house and its neighbor at auction last year because he wanted to tear them down. An engineer’s review found both in poor shape, gutted of amenities and in need of expensive overhauls.
What’s more he said, other earlier attempts to buy land for parking failed. Residential neighbors behind him protested his plan for a lot closer to their houses and a competitor outbid him for a lot to the side.
It has been frustrating, he said, to watch other old buildings get torn down for new projects and then have his plans now stymied. “I just want what’s fair for me,” he said.
Trustees responded that buyers have an obligation to research properties to be sure there are not restrictions, such as East Aurora’s zoning that favors preservation of the residential look of Main Street.
“I would hope that no matter what you buy that you do your homework and you know what the rules are,” said Mayor Allan Kaspryzak before suggesting that the village try to help Wachala find solutions. “Maybe we could all have a ‘kumbaya’ moment and work with Pasquale’s,” he said.