Tonawanda News

October 5, 2013

People Inc.'s Highland school proposal debated

By Jessica Bagley jessica.bagley@tonawanda-news.com
The Tonawanda News

Tonawanda News — Tonawanda officials and People Inc. representatives met Thursday to discuss the pending legal challenge against a city zoning board decision that is blocking the nonprofit’s efforts to develop Highland School into a low-income apartment building.  

The parties are attempting to resolve the issue outside of the courtroom, Tonawanda City Attorney Ron Trabucco said. Mayor Ron Pilozzi and the chairman of the zoning board attended the informational meeting Thursday, which did not result in a settlement. 

“We were brought up to speed on the nature of the actual application to the zoning board, and to fill in some gaps on what the project entails,” Trabucco said.

The attendees discussed the cost of the project, what renovations would be done, what the eligibility requirements for the tenants would be and if the city could receive a payment in lieu of taxes from the nonprofit.

If the zoning board agrees to it, the next step in the discussion process will be an informational meeting for the body and the public. 

“They could again present the project to the public and the (zoning) board, and discuss the variances they need,” Trabucco said.

But if the zoning board doesn’t agree to the meeting, Trabucco said he will defend the city’s zoning board decision in Erie County Court, where the challenge was filed. 

People Inc. hopes to rent the building from its owner, S.Spoth, LLC, and create 38 multi-use apartments for seniors, young professionals and those with disabilities.

But the plans hit a stumbling block last year when the nonprofit’s application for a building permit was denied. In a letter to the nonprofit, city Building Inspector Kevin Rank said the plans were inconsistent with four zoning regulations.

The width as well as the area of the parking lot are not big enough for the project, Rank said. His letter stated the city’s minimum lot size for the project is listed 135,500 square feet, while the lot size of the Highland property is significantly smaller — only 80,127 square feet.

The location of the parking lots as well as the number of spots were also not up to code.

In response, People Inc., filed a variance request to relieve them from the four zoning issues, arguing the project wouldn’t have a significant impact on the surrounding area.

“The essential characteristic of the neighborhood is the same,” Frederick wrote in the document to the city.

But the zoning board deadlocked in a 2-2 vote, and the request was not granted, leading to the nonprofit’s challenge. 

The building was sold to S.Spoth, LLC, in spring 2012 for $152,000, much less than its listed price. The school has been vacant since the district closed it in 2009. 

Contact reporter Jessica Bagley at 693-1000 ext. 4150, or follow her on Twitter @JessicaLBagley.