Tonawanda News

December 18, 2013

City zoning board denies People Inc.'s request again

By Jessica Bagley
The Tonawanda News

Tonawanda News — The City of Tonawanda Zoning Board of Appeals denied People Inc.’s variance request for the second time Monday night, halting the nonprofit’s plans to develop the vacant Highland School into 38 low-income apartments.

“This board usually approves variances of 10 to 15 percent. This is a significant request of 41 percent,” Chairman Dave Bernosky said at the meeting. “The location of the school is in the center of a residential area, and there will be an influx of people, which will change the character of the neighborhood.”

In May, People Inc. filed a legal challenge against the zoning board’s initial rejection of the request. The two parties attempted to settle the matter outside of the courtroom, but were unsuccessful. Earlier this month, Erie County Court Judge Tracey Bannister remanded the case back to the Board of Appeals and asked them to reconsider.

Following Monday’s unanimous vote, People Inc. Chief Operating Officer Rhonda Frederick said her team will meet today to discuss the next steps. The parties are due back in court on Wednesday.

“We are very disappointed,” she said. 

People Inc. hopes to rent the building from its owner, S. Spoth, LLC. The nonprofit has recently submitted grant applications for the $6 million renovation project and plans to start construction in a year.

Frederick said the 38 apartments would cost between $400 and $500 per month, and would be home to young professionals, those with disabilities and senior citizens earning less than $23,000 per year.

The plans first hit a stumbling block last year when People Inc.’s application for a building permit was denied. In a letter to the nonprofit, Building Inspector Kevin Rank said the plans were inconsistent with four zoning regulations.The width as well as the surface 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 as 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.

Sean Hopkins, an attorney representing People Inc., appeared before the board Monday night to discuss some of the members’ concerns. Since the last meeting, People Inc. hired an engineer to conduct a traffic study which indicated that during peak hours, traffic around the building would be less than what it was during its time as a school.

“While yes, there would be an increased traffic in comparison to a vacant building, it would not be significant,” Hopkins said. “Whatever goes on there is going to generate some traffic.”

Hopkins also said that People Inc. has completed a draft of a Payment in Lieu of Taxes agreement, a $6,000 offer that Assessor Dave Marrano said is too low.

“We would be looking at between $500 and $1,000 per unit to be on target with other PILOT programs,” he said. “What I would suggest is that we sit down with these folks and make sure we get a fair return for them coming into the city.”

But he noted that the PILOT aspect of the project is up to the common council, not the zoning board, and spoke to the merits of the redevelopment.

“In defense of People Inc., there has been a lot of research on reuse of residential schools,” he said. “The reuse potential for anything beyond residential use is outright impossible. You are not going to see a commercial building, you’re not going to see a retail building.”

The building has been vacant since 2009.

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