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Jul 18, 2019

$30 million housing project remains divisive in Williamsville

An unusually bitter, long-running debate about a $30 million housing development continues to rile a small village best known for its Main Street commercial corridor.

At its core, the conflict is about what level of development – if any – is appropriate for one of the last major sites available for new residences in Williamsville.

As these fights often do, it pits neighbor against neighbor.

“It’s such a hot topic,” Williamsville Mayor Deborah Rogers said.

The debate is bubbling up again. Some homeowners say village officials promised them a road that would shift traffic from the development away from their neighborhood.

Residents printed anonymous flyers urging attendance at a Village Board meeting last month and talked of running write-in candidates in the recent village elections.

A leading figure in this fight? The wife of the Amherst town supervisor, who was the village mayor when the project was unveiled by Natale Development.

Advocates say the Asher Crossing project will bring dozens of apartments and townhouses – and new property tax revenue – to the village. But a group of those living near the former construction yard remain deeply concerned over the project’s scale and its effect on their quality of life.

“I still think it’s too large,” said Joseph Spino, who moved onto California Drive around the time Natale unveiled its plans.

Natale Development plans to build 30 townhouses and 90 apartments on California on the former site of Herbert F. Darling Inc.

The construction contractor operated for more than 75 years at the 5-acre property south of Main Street on the edge of South Long Park, a neighborhood of single-family homes along California, Milton Street, Los Robles Street and Pasadena Place.

Neighbors say Darling’s light-industrial operations produced little traffic.

However, a decade-old community plan recommended high-density housing on the site. Williamsville has few large properties primed for apartments and townhouses that appeal to empty nesters, millennials and others.

Four years ago, the village rezoned the Darling property to multifamily residential. Angelo Natale in late summer 2015 revealed his plans to buy the Darling property and build 30 townhouses and 112 apartments there.

The project moved slowly through the approval process. In October 2016, then-Mayor Brian Kulpa said the project makes sense for a number of reasons but he cautioned that the Village Planning Board still must sign off on the plans.

Kulpa and other village officials solicited feedback from the public through walking tours, by using Legos to build models and talking to children about what they’d like to see in a park.

Some neighbors objected from the beginning.

“First of all, there’s so much traffic already on Main Street, that it didn’t seem prudent to jam another 500 people, or more, into this little space,” said Dennis Hoban, who moved onto California in 1986.

With the project stalled by spring 2017, village officials floated the idea of a land swap with Natale that would have shifted the densest part of the development away from most of the neighboring single-family homes.

However, many residents didn’t want to lose the village’s only dedicated ball diamond, little used as it was, and bright-red signs sprouted up saying “Don’t Pave South Long Park.”

Given those objections, and a higher-than-estimated cost to rebuild South Long Park following the land swap, the proposal fell apart.

In September 2017, the village and Natale came back with a scaled-back land swap that returned the apartments, now in three buildings, to the Darling property.

One month later, the Village Board found the project would not harm the environment and authorized the mayor to sign the smaller land-swap deal.

Last summer, the Williamsville Planning Board approved the site plan. Natale started demolition at the site in December.

That seemed to settle the issue, so why are some residents still cross about Asher Crossing?

The people who live closest to the construction yard want some of the traffic carried away from Milton and California and toward South Long Street.

A flyer handed out last month in the village, titled “HELP! Your Village Board isn’t listening to you,” states that the Planning Board was assured by the Village Board the access road would be added later but that trustees went back on their pledge.

“I think the neighborhood, the neighbors, felt betrayed by their board,” said Spino, a Republican candidate for Amherst Town Board, who added he didn’t produce the flyers.

Rogers, a former village trustee who took over as mayor this month, said she saw Catherine Waterman-Kulpa and her daughter, dressed in her Girl Scout uniform, handing out the flyers on Pasadena Place shortly before the June 10 Village Board meeting.

Rogers said she told Waterman-Kulpa something along the lines of “this is the beauty of the democracy we live in.”

“You better believe it. I’m teaching my Girl Scout well,” Waterman-Kulpa responded, according to Rogers.

Waterman-Kulpa, a member of the Village Planning Board, declined comment through her husband.

It was standing room only at the June 10 meeting, when about 17 residents spoke about the Natale project.

The board reiterated that it wasn’t going to pay to build the access road, citing the $250,000 estimated cost and the loss of green space, even if they shared the residents’ concerns.

Natale said he wants to cooperate with the village on a roadway, but there are questions of who will pay for and own the road.

“We know that there may be a traffic situation now, but I don’t think what we’re doing is going to impact it,” Natale said.

Hard feelings linger. Rogers said Waterman-Kulpa told her in a separate encounter that she planned to seek write-in candidates for the races for mayor and for two trustee seats. The people running for those positions, including Rogers, were otherwise unopposed.

Rogers said she felt like a “scapegoat” on the Natale situation when much of it predated her board service.

Kulpa, who left Williamsville office at the end of 2017, said he’s been careful not to interfere in village business.

But Kulpa said of the access road: “Personally? Yeah, I would like it. I think that it changes the telemetry of the site. But I followed a lot of rabbits down a lot of rabbit holes when we were trying to figure all that out.”

He said his wife wasn’t the only person handing out the flyers and she didn’t organize a write-in campaign.

“As a Planning Board member, I think she was outspoken about wanting that access, and I think that she still feels that way,” Kulpa said.

Any campaign didn’t amount to much. In the mayor’s race, for example, Rogers received 117 votes and write-in candidates received about 10 total votes, including two for Kulpa and one for Waterman-Kulpa.

What happens next? Residents remain frustrated but it’s not clear whether any would file a lawsuit to try to block the project.

Natale said he hopes construction will start within a couple of weeks. The first apartment building and the first of the townhouses could be finished by the spring.

“I still think there’s a few people that are not receptive to the change,” Natale said, “and they may fight it all the way to the end until they see some beautiful landscaping and buildings there.”

Published in The Buffalo News, July 14, 2019