By Michael J. Billoni
During the first quarter of the new year, the Town of Grand Island’s Planning Board and Town Board will be asked to review plans and vote on a 1.1-million-square-foot, 45-foot-high warehouse along the New York State Thruway I-190, which some are calling “the largest facility ever built on the Island.” At the same time, the group that spoke out against the Amazon project has reemerged in opposition of this project.
Michael Huntress, CEO of Acquest Development, said his family’s company has owned the undeveloped, 145-acre property at 2780 Long Road for 30 years. Acquest had a deal to sell the property to Amazon (“Project Olive”), which proposed building a massive, $300 million, five-story, 3.8-million square-foot warehouse and distribution center on the site between Long and Bedell roads before Amazon abruptly walked away from the deal in August.
Huntress, who appeared virtually before the town’s Planning Board on Dec. 12, discussed his company’s reasons behind building a warehouse of this size with no signed tenants.
“We learned a lot from the Amazon project, which I believe would have been a good project for Grand Island,” he said. “During that process, we learned there is a great need in the marketplace locally and nationally for high bay warehouse space. We are extremely confident this speculative project will be a successful one or we would not be building what is proposed to be an $80 million project.”
Huntress was on the call with three associates, including an engineer from Langan Engineering, a worldwide premier provider of integrated land development engineering and environmental consulting services for more than four decades – and the firm used by Trammel Crow, the developers representing Amazon on the Grand Island project.
“We have designed a 1.1-million-square-foot warehouse that is 100% ‘as of right,’ so there is not much to go through relative to the design,” he told Planning Board members. “Our goal is to have the Planning Board understand clearly that we have reviewed the code requirements for the M-1 District and have done everything we could to meet them.”
Huntress also said they are not looking for any zoning variances, a claim Amazon could not make.
The agenda item for the Planning Board meeting called for a site approval recommendation to the Town Board. Chairman David Bruno opened that portion of the lengthy meeting with this directive to his members: “I request everyone to set aside personal feelings and put their Planning Board hats on and see how this project fits the code in this zoning and leave it at that.”
Once Huntress completed his opening remarks, he fielded many questions, ranging from how they determined the number of parking spaces, to options if they do not have tenants; how they can submit a traffic plan, to if they know who will occupy the warehouse; to questions about their plans for the wetlands, what the eventual space will look like, and a 12-acre pond for water retention that will be nearly 500 feet from residences.
Huntress and his team calmly answered each question.
Parking spaces are based on the town code for the size of the building. The project calls for 1,300 spaces for cars, less than 400 trailers, and 101 loading docks. The building will be 90% warehouse space with offices facing the I-190. In the space between the building and the highway and around the building will be more than 14,000 plantings, just under 400 additional trees, and most of the forested area on the property will remain.
“We are excited about this project and our hope is a positive recommendation from the Planning Board,” Huntress said.
Instead, members made a motion to recommend the Town Board declare this a Type I action under the state of New York’s Environmental Review Act (SEQRA). It passed, 5-2.
Bruno, who voted against, asked for a vote on the site plan and that failed, 5-2. A motion at the end of the meeting asking Huntress to return to the Planning Board, with more information and completing the table of contents for the environmental impact statement, passed 6-1.
Earlier this week, Bruno expressed his displeasure in the votes that evening during an interview with the Island Dispatch.
“I voted against asking them to provide SEQRA because that is done at the Town Board level. We are an advisory board to the Town Board on site plan approval. We determine if a project fits a site and whether it is within code,” he explained. “SEQRA puts you into environmental issues in which there is a long checklist, and we have asked them to come back with answers. Generally, the Town Board acts as the lead agency and it is done through all town departments and it has nothing to do with the Planning Board.”
“SEQRA was not on the agenda. The site plan approval was on the agenda,” he added.
Huntress, during an interview with the Island Dispatch after the meeting, said, “We will be in front of the Planning Board again next month looking for a positive recommendation after we provide them with the additional information they have requested.”
Acquest, by working with Langan Engineering, had previously submitted a lengthy application for this project to the town’s Building Department that essentially took the Amazon application and edited it to fit their new footprint.
“This site is zoned properly, and it fits into town’s master plan and there really is no better location on the Island for it,” Huntress said. “It was zoned this way because the town saw it for such a similar use – a perfect location for industrial use.”
Bruno was an advocate for the Amazon project because he said the town needs much more commercial tax dollars to help bring down residential taxes and also because the massive e-commerce company was offering a $10 million incentive to the town, which he said could have been used to build a much-needed community center for residents of all ages. He said Amazon “spent a fortune creating thousands of pages of documents we have already been through about this site.”
“We know everything there is to know about that property, but … there are members of this board who just don’t want this project. Ultimately, though, Mr. Huntress has his rights as the landowner,” Bruno added.
“As a Planning Board, we have had other engineers come before us saying there is a big demand for high bay warehouse space. Amazon is not the only e-commerce company out there, and Mr. Huntress said he has nearly 2 million square-feet of similar warehouse space filled in Rochester,” Bruno said.
Soon after the Dec. 12 Planning Board meeting, the Coalition for Responsible Economic Development for Grand Island distributed a statement in a release to local news and social media stating it is grateful “the Planning Board is taking a deliberate and cautious approach to this project.”
It went on to say, “development should reflect the town’s comprehensive plan and resident surveys about preferred land use for the community, which does not include warehouses of this size.”
It should be an interesting start of the new year in regard to development projects on Grand Island.