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Amherst, New York Planning Board OKs Controversial Hyatt Place Hotel
but Legal Challenges are Almost Certain

By Sandra Tan, The Buffalo News, N.Y.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News

March 22, 2013--The controversial, six-story Hyatt Place project won its second major victory in less than 12 hours today, with the Amherst Industrial Development Agency approving more than $1.4 million in tax breaks for the development.

The approval of the tax breaks, which came in a 4-3 vote during an unusually long two-hour meeting, came after just hours after the Amherst Planning Board approved the project in a 5-2 vote after a lengthy meeting that didn't yield a decision until close to 11:30 p.m. Thursday.

Numerous legal challenges are almost certain, though Iskalo Development Vice President David Chiazza said his company has no intention in delaying its construction plans for a hotel opening date of June or July 2014. Barring a court ruling that blocks construction, at least temporarily, Chiazza said construction could begin by mid-April or mid-May.

"We're going to proceed with due haste," he said.

Meanwhile, opponents of the project have pledged to use whatever resources necessary to challenge the project on every available legal and administrative level.

Lawyer Richard Berger said the residents will be challenging both the decisions of the Planning Board and the Zoning Board in relation to the project and the homeowners' pond that separates the commercial project from residential homes.

The IDA approved the tax breaks despite opposition from the Amherst Central School District, which stands to lose $404,250 in property tax revenue it would have received if the hotel project was built without taxpayer incentives. Project supporters said the hotel development, even with the tax breaks will generate more than $1.25 million in additional tax revenue for the school district -- along with more than $737,000 in new tax money for Amherst and Erie County -- during the next decade.

"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.

"The actions the Planning Board took today are preposterous," Berger said following the Planning Board vote.

With a final town decision hanging in the balance regarding the hotel, both the developer and the residents played tug-of-war before the Planning Board over the waterline of 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 they've 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 underwater," Berger said.

More than 50 unhappy residents turned out to oppose the $15 million, 137-room Hyatt Place project, which would go up behind the Lord Amherst Hotel, on the northwest side of the Main Street-Youngmann Highway interchange.

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 the Iskalo even though the Town Board unanimously supported a resolution last week rezoning the pond as residential property based on the conflicting residents' survey.

Ketchum said, "I wouldn't use the property survey of the adjacent property owner [in evaluating a site plan]. I would use the property survey of the applicant. It's the way it's always done."

The Planning Board's decision regarding the Hyatt Place project came late, after seven public hearing presentations were heard by the board. In the end, the site plan was approved after some relatively light discussion.

Advocates on both sides spent more than 2 1/2 hours advocating for and against the Hyatt project, which has drawn fire for its size and scale.

Iskalo Development spent about 40 minutes explaining and promoting the reasons why their site plan deserved approval. Vice President David Chiazza and lawyer Sean Hopkins cited numerous reports and studies that support the project, as well as approvals from more than a half-dozen town departments and oversight groups sanctioning the development.

Berger, the lawyer for neighborhood opposition, spent an equal amount of time arguing against the project. He said, among other things, that the Planning Board was ill-equipped to make a decision because of the pond boundary disputes, and a lack of authority to rule on the project's impact on the environment.

He and other residents also raised concerns about saltwater runoff from the parking lots killing the aquatic wildlife in Mike's Pond and turning the body of water into a saltwater swamp.

In light of Thursday's decision, he said, residents will likely file a number of legal and administrative challenges.

Chiazza said he expects the challenges but feels the company will survive them.

"Obviously, we feel that we've been very careful and we feel we've been very thorough. If there was a legal challenge, we think we'd be successful."

He also said the company has no intention of building parking spaces that will encroach on Mike's Pond in any way.



(c)2013 The Buffalo News (Buffalo, N.Y.)

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