Park Politics in Amherst
(This 762nd column was not published on November 6, 2005.)
In early October I attended a quite remarkable meeting of about two dozen people at the Crow's Nest Tavern in Amherst. In attendance were about an equal number of members of the usually warring Republican and Democratic parties. While a palpable undercurrent of unease pervaded the room, the meeting itself was more than calm, the atmosphere was friendly and even cordial.
This amazed me because that's not the way things have been in Amherst politics for several years. The situation there may be different from that of Buffalo but Amherst politics is equally fraught with anger and frustration.
Unfortunately for this self-congratulatory town, its board meetings are carried over cable television and friends constantly kid me about them being more ludicrous than situation comedies. I have not been able to bring myself to watch but my wife tells me that they are embarrassing. Perhaps the worst recent example of board behavior occurred when a councilmember had police officers remove a meeting visitor who had bothered him -- in handcuffs.
What drew these people to the Crow's Nest Tavern meeting was Amherst's Nature View Park.
Nature View Park is important to me. It is a 1250-acre plot in northwest Amherst in a rectangle bounded by Campbell Boulevard and French, Tonawanda Creek and Sweethome Roads. The park itself is a mix of second growth forest and open grasslands, much of it flooded in springtime and thus legally designated as wetlands. When it was first established, I censused the birds there, my three-year list reaching over 100 species. Later I joined Jim Pawlicki and Nick Sly several times when they patrolled the park for the state Breeding Bird Atlas. They added many species to my list including a rare golden-winged warbler. While it was still active, I also participated in park planning on Jason Engel's committee.
But then in 2000 virtually all Nature View-related activities came to a halt. Here's why:
In 1999, the Amherst Town Board voted to commit a one-time $60,000 payment to establish an endowment with the Western New York Land Conservancy to protect Nature View Park from future development. The small annual income from that endowment would provide necessary supervisory and legal costs for the Conservancy. This is a common practice for protecting parklands from future intrusion and development. Failure to make such a commitment leaves such lands open to the machinations of later boards as in the current threat to sell county parks.
Unfortunately, shortly after this commitment was recorded a newly elected board majority voted to rescind the agreement. The town attorney informed Amherst Supervisor Susan Grelick and those who sided with her that they were acting illegally in canceling the commitment. Undaunted, her group hired outside attorneys to represent them and the matter was referred to the courts. This was what put park preparation in mothballs.
Over subsequent years the Grelick side lost in court three times and when, during a fourth appearance Judge Joseph Makowski recommended a compromise agreement, it first passed the board but now has been voted down once again. (At this time the supervisor unsuccessfully sought to disenfranchise board members who opposed her.) The costs of these activities have not only mounted over the years but, because the board went outside its own legal representation, the town must pay the expenses of both sides of the courtroom battles. The total additional amount that this has cost the town so far hovers near $100,000 and it continues to mount.
I have found these actions incredible and I have not been able to understand Ms. Grelick's deeply entrenched posture on this issue. To her credit she has generally supported Amherst parks and, under her watch, several have been created, including Amherst State Park.
It was this fiasco that brought the people together at the Crow's Nest. Everyone there, members of both parties, spoke strongly against Ms. Grelick, a Democrat, and board member Jane Woodward, a Republican, who has sided with her and is also up for reelection.
It is my hope that Amherst voters will consider this Nature View Park episode a serious issue when they enter the voting booths this week.-- Gerry Rising