By Michael J. Billoni
Senior Contributing Writer
In the very near future, the Grand Island Town Board will vote on building the single largest development project in town history, when it is presented with Acquest Development’s request to build a 1.08-million-square-foot, one-floor high-bay facility on 138 acres. The Grand Island Commerce Center would be built between Bedell and Love roads.
William and Michael Huntress, owners of the Amherst-based development company, have owned the property between Bedell and Long roads for years. They believed they had a deal with Amazon to build a 3.78-million-square-foot, five-story e-commerce storage and distribution center on 123 acres that was dubbed “Project Olive” in 2020. That proposal never made it to the Town Board for a vote, because Amazon and its developer, Trammell Crow Co., withdrew the application on the afternoon of a public hearing on a zoning change needed to build a national distribution center on Grand Island.
The center is now being built in Niagara County.
Acquest’s current project, with no tenant publicly stated, is less than a third of the size of the Amazon project, and it will be one story tall and 45 feet in height. The proposal calls for 1,292 parking spaces – 30% fewer than the Amazon plan – and 383 trailer spaces, a 75% increase. With no zoning changes needed, it fully complies with the town code, so it doesn't require more than Planning Board approval of the design and site plan, and the eventual vote of the Town Board.
“I do not have any comments at this time,” Michael Huntress stated in a text message seeking an update on the project.
Town Supervisor John C. Whitney, P.E., said consultants working for the town and being paid by Acquest, are going back and forth with the developer on its responses to the New York's State Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQR), which requires all state and local government agencies to consider environmental impacts equally, with social and economic factors during discretionary decision-making.
“The town consultants have responded back by saying, ‘We accept this, but don’t accept that,’ and ‘Here are our comments.’ Acquest will then review those comments and send back comments for our review. It is an iterative process until we accept that draft of the supplemental environmental impact statement,” Whitney explained. “At that time, the Town Board will schedule a public hearing.”
Much like the town’s anticipation of an overflow crowd during the coronavirus pandemic for the Amazon public hearing that never occurred, Whitney said he “expects a very large crowd for the public hearing,” whenever it is scheduled for the Acquest Development project.
The Coalition for Responsible Economic Development For Grand Island (CRED4GI), with its red and black “No Giant Warehouse” lawn signs displayed predominantly on the west side of the island, is mobilizing residents in the same way it did to successfully object to the Amazon plan nearly three years ago. Regarding this effort to block the town’s latest mega-warehouse proposal for that site, CRED4GI, on its private Facebook page, and website, claim the Acquest Development project would be "far too large" and "does not fit with the general character" of the community. Earlier this year, the citizens group attended a Town Board meeting to voice its opposition, suggesting this project would create "even more" traffic, air and noise pollution, and more "negative environmental impacts" than the Amazon project. It's calling for a fresh environmental review of the project, according to Cathy Rayhill, spokeswoman for CRED4GI.
Whitney said Acquest has made “some concessions” to its original request, such as dropping the amount of fill it would replace on the site, changes to its traffic plan, and turning the building around so the truck bays now will face the thruway.
“In a conversation I had with Cathy and Mike Rayhill, I asked if this project receives approval from the Town Board, will your group sue the town and she said, ‘More than likely,’ ” the supervisor explained. “I then asked if we deny this project, do they believe the town will be sued by Acquest Development, and she said, ‘Yeah, probably.’
“So, as town supervisor, I am getting sued either way.
“My take on this is that this is not what John Whitney wants. It will be a decision of what is best for Grand Island in a way we can defend a potential lawsuit.”
Once the town’s consultants and the board members are satisfied with all the responses to the SEQR, the public hearing will be scheduled.
“We plan to take all the comments from that public hearing into consideration, review them with our consultants, who will take comments back to Acquest, where needed, for their response,” Whitney said. “Once we have received the final approved comments from the consultants, we would then consider the public hearing closed, and I would entertain a motion to vote on this project at a Town Board meeting.
“The project continues to move along, but this takes time, because we are looking at the largest single development project ever on Grand Island; and each Town Board member and myself understands our responsibility to town residents to ensure we review every aspect of this application.
“It is a process.”