Tonawanda News

March 19, 2014

Zoning board appeals Highland decision

By Jessica Bagley
The Tonawanda News

Tonawanda News — The City of Tonawanda Zoning Board of Appeals has filed an appeal of an Erie County judge’s decision granting People Inc. the zoning variances necessary for the redevelopment of the vacant Highland school.  

“The zoning board asked me to file a notice of appeal based upon the decision to grant the two variances, so I filed that notice,” City Attorney Ron Trabucco said.

Trabucco hasn’t formally submitted the appeal yet and a court date has not been set. At Tuesday night’s council meeting, the body retained attorney David Seeger to assist Trabucco with the process. 

Erie County Court Judge Tracey Bannister granted the variances in January after the Zoning Board of Appeals twice rejected the non-profit’s request. 

People Inc. plans to rent the building from owner S. Spoth, LLC, and turn it into 38 low-income apartments for young professionals, seniors and those with disabilities who earn less than $23,000 per year.

People Inc. Chief Operating Officer Rhonda Frederick said the construction will cost $6 million, and they are hoping to begin work in a year. If People Inc. is able to move forward with the project, the organization still needs to secure funding for the construction and negotiate a payment-in-lieu-of-taxes agreement with the city.

The plans first hit a stumbling block last year when the group’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.

The non-profit then filed a variance request, but the zoning board turned it down. In response, People, Inc., filed a legal challenge. The two parties attempted to settle the matter outside the courtroom, but were unsuccessful.

In December, Bannister remanded the case back to the board of appeals and asked them to reconsider. For the second time, the body denied the variance request, citing a variety of concerns.

“This board usually approves variances of 10 to 15 percent. This is a significant request of 41 percent,” Zoning Board of Appeals Chairman Dave Bernosky said at the December meeting of the parking lot size disparity. “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.”

The two parties then met back in Erie County Court, where Bannister granted the variances.

After the judge’s decision was announced, Tonawanda Mayor Rick Davis said he was pleased that the building would be utilized.

“The reuse of any school is really limited,” he said in January. “I hope People, Inc., is going to be a good neighbor to the homeowners who live in the neighborhood, but the last thing we need is a vacant school deteriorating.” 

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