Tonawanda News

January 17, 2014

Judge grants Highland variance

By Jessica Bagley
The Tonawanda News

Tonawanda News — Erie County Court Judge Tracey Bannister has sided with People, Inc., and granted the non-profit the zoning variances necessary for the redevelopment of the vacant Highland school in the City of Tonawanda. 

The case landed in court after the city’s Zoning Board of Appeals refused to grant waivers related to parking spaces on the site.

“She felt that the findings of the Zoning Board of Appeals were not sufficient to support their position in denying the variance,” City Attorney Ron Trabucco said. 

The non-profit 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. Although the judge’s decision allows People, Inc., 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 voted to reject it. In response, People, Inc., filed a legal challenge. The two parties attempted to settle the matter outside of 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.

“We are pleased with the decision, and just as importantly, we look forward to continue working with the city,” Sean Hopkins, an attorney representing People, Inc., said. “We want to work together and not be adversarial.” 

Mayor Rick Davis noted that People Inc.’s proposed development will allow the building, which has been vacant since 2009, to be utilized. 

“The reuse of any school is really limited,” he said. “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.