Tonawanda News

May 22, 2013

Highland hanging in the balance

By Jessica Bagley
The Tonawanda News

Tonawanda News — People Inc. has filed a legal challenge against a City of Tonawanda zoning board decision that is blocking the nonprofit's efforts to develop Highland School into a low-income apartment building. 

According to the organization's chief operating officer, Rhonda Frederick, the organization 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 in the fall 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 lot are not big enough for the project, Rank said. His letter stated that 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 that request was not granted after the zoning board deadlocked in a 2-2 vote. 

Zoning board member David Bernosky said the members were concerned about the number of apartments in the building as well as the parking plans.

"You are adding a lot of population in that area, and it makes it very condensed," he said. "And it does present a problem with parking. I know they say the average person might have one car, but I have four cars in my driveway right now ... that was one of the major concerns."

People Inc. went back and revised the plans, Bernosky said, but the revamped drawings contained fewer parking spots than the original plan, so the nonprofit's second application went down in a 4-0 vote. 

"It just exacerbated the problem," Bernosky said. 

The nonprofit, with the assistance of attorney Sean Hopkins, then filed the challenge in New York State Supreme Court. The case was scheduled for a motions hearing today, but it was adjourned in order to give the two parties time to explore the possibility of an agreement, Hopkins said .

"This is not an adversarial situation," Hopkins said. "It is a good project and a good reuse of the building, and we're hoping to work it out."

City Attorney Ron Trabucco said he has meet with Hopkins to discuss the matter. 

"We have had some conversations in an effort to get to the heart of geeting the case resolved," he said. 

Trabucco said he is waiting for additional information from Hopkins about the entirety of the project. He will then communicate with the zoning board, council and mayor about the possibility of resolving the disagreement out of court. 

"If not, we are going to have to proceed to court with this case," he said. 

A for sale sign still sits on the lawn of the property as People Inc.'s plans are not yet set in stone. Last spring, the school was sold to S. Spoth, LLC, for $152,000 — much less than its original list price.

It has sat vacant since 2009 when it was closed by the school district.

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