Nature View Park
(This 783rd Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on April 2, 2006.)
Many outsiders were surprised at the election loss last November of two formerly popular Amherst incumbents, Supervisor Susan Grelick and Councilmember Jane Woodward. To the hundreds of voters upset over a single environmental issue, the results were less unexpected. Here is the story of how that issue contributed to that unexpected result.
In October last year I attended a quite remarkable meeting at the Crow's Nest Tavern in Amherst called by Councilmember Bill Kindel and community activist Kim Goodman. In attendance was 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 calm, the atmosphere 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 usually equally fraught with anger and frustration.
The subject that drew those people to that Crow's Nest Tavern meeting was Amherst's Nature View Park.
Nature View Park is important to me. It is a two square mile plot in northwest Amherst, 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 wetland.
When the park was first established, I censused 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 on Jason Engel's park planning committee.
But then in 2000 virtually all Nature View-related activities came to a halt. In 1999, the Amherst Town Board had voted to commit a one-time $69,000 payment to establish an endowment with the Western New York Land Conservancy to protect Nature View 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 recent proposal to sell county parks.
Unfortunately, shortly after this commitment vote was recorded a newly elected board majority voted to rescind the agreement. The town attorney informed then Supervisor Grelick and those who sided with her that they were acting illegally. Undaunted, her group hired outside lawyers to represent them and the matter was referred to the courts. This and subsequent actions were what put park preparation in mothballs for six years.
Over those years the Grelick side lost in court three times and when, during a fourth appearance Erie County Supreme Court Judge Joseph Makowski recommended a compromise agreement, it first passed the board but then was voted down once again. (At that time the supervisor unsuccessfully sought to disenfranchise board members who opposed her.) The costs of those legal activities not only mounted over the years but, because the board circumvented its own legal officers, the town had to pay the expenses of both sides of the courtroom battles. The total additional amount that this cost the town amounted to approximately $100,000.
I found those actions incredible and I was unable to understand Grelick's deeply entrenched posture on this issue. To her credit she generally supported Amherst parks and, under her watch, several were created, including Amherst State Park.
It was this long-standing fiasco that brought those people together at the Crow's Nest. Every other candidate at that meeting committed to reinstatement of the park agreement.
The votes of hundreds of Amherst voters were determined by concerns about that single issue. Fliers were distributed and volunteers visited house-to-house visits in a low-tech response to the expensive campaigns of those incumbents. You know the result: those formerly popular town officers went down to defeat.
The story has now ended happily. On March 20 the contract was finally honored by the new board. Nature View Park is now ready to move forward.-- Gerry Rising