Article and Photos by Karen Carr Keefe
Senior Contributing Writer
A standing-room-only crowd in Town Hall on Monday signaled its approval to the town’s efforts to limit the size of new buildings on Grand Island to 100,000 square feet.
Then in a further effort to be proactive, Supervisor Pete Marston later suggested to board members a lower number – 65,000 square feet – for the maximum size of new buildings.
Monday’s public hearing had been long awaited by those residents who say a mega-warehouse would have a negative impact on the Island’s quality of life.
“Our zoning laws are really built based on open space vs. building size,” Marston said.
His idea for further size reduction is the latest chapter in an ongoing board effort to redraw town zoning law as it applies to large-scale buildings. This is in light of a proposed 1.2 million-square-foot warehouse for Long Road. The proposal is the bellwether for similar projects that could come before the Town Board.
Despite the applause and unanimity of those who spoke against the warehouse project, the Town Board ultimately took no action on the proposed zoning law changes, referring it back to themselves for further study.
Up for eventual consideration is a revamping that would not only remove warehouses and distribution centers from M-1 and M-2 zoning, but would also standardize permitted new building size islandwide.
Acquest Development is proposing a warehouse/distribution center on the same parcel that Amazon had eyed for a warehouse before pulling out amid resident protest in 2020.
More than a dozen residents who spoke at the hearing said that the proposed law is needed and valid.
Janice Wieckowski brought a ripple of laughter through the crowd when she said, “I know there’s like 20,000 people living here on Grand Island and I can’t believe that the majority of them wake up each morning hoping, praying for a huge mega-warehouse.”
Dave Reilly also spoke in support of the proposed legislation: “I think it is a tremendous improvement over the current law, and I think the effort reflects a collaborative approach among the board members.”
He and others encouraged board members going forward to realign zoning so that it conforms to the town’s comprehensive plan.
Nancy LaChiusa made a suggestion that councilmembers said they may pursue. She disputed including under the proposed law a certain type of facility as an allowable use in M-1 zoning. The description reads as follows: “Wholesale establishments, packaging, distributing and parcel delivery services, including retail incidental to wholesale.”
She said, “That sounds very ambiguous and it sounds very much like a warehouse would be allowed under that permitted use.”
Michael W. Rayhill said he favored the proposed local zoning law: “I think we’re really stewards of the present; and I think to be more mindful of the impact of one project on our children and our grandchildren is important because, do we want to invert what makes the island so unique and so special and that makes people continue to live in this community and then also makes people desire to move here?”
He added, “On the whole, I think that the community is unified in their desire to protect the natural beauty of our island, but they are also unified about the need to attract the right businesses that are tailored to our very specific geography and our very specific way of life on the island.”
After closing the public hearing, Marston talked about the next step in the process, referring the proposed zoning law for review by the Erie County Division of Planning. The county has 30 days to respond. If there’s no response, the town can take final action and adopt the law. If the county does respond, the town can start looking at changes it may want to make so the proposed law is more acceptable to county planners.
“We would be acting inappropriately if we adopted this law today,” Marston said following the close of public comment. After a motion was made and seconded to refer the law back to the board, he opened the topic for discussion by the board. Councilman Michael Madigan said he believed the county review would be done in time for the Town Board to vote on the law in October.
Marston then raised several questions based on research he said he had done regarding the implications of the proposed law on all zones on the Island.
“One of my big concerns is, what is it to existing, nonconforming buildings? … Where does that leave them in the future?” he asked. “How do they add on, appropriately?”
None of his fellow councilmembers had an answer.
Marston then constructed his argument for reducing the square footage for new builds – across all zones – to 65,000.
“So, let me ask the board this, where on Grand Island would you build a 100,000-square foot building that wouldn’t require massive, off-site mitigation?” he said.
Madigan responded, “We really need to do a very thorough review, over the next several months, at all our zones.”
Councilmember Christian Bahleda answered Marston’s question, “Off the top of my head, I can’t think of anywhere.”
“So why are we going with 100,000?” Marston asked. “I did some research. There’s four buildings on Grand Island that are over 100,000 square feet. Three of them are private. Two are in the M-1 zone.”
Marston cited the number of large buildings in decreasing order of size, mentioning that, by the way, Grand Island High School is the biggest building on the Island.
“My point being, I know we’re looking at these limitations in the M-1 zoning, but I really don’t see why they can’t apply globally on Grand Island,” Marston said. “I’m sorry, we are a two-lane town … we don’t have four-lane roads everywhere, and I don’t see a reason we should be building anything that big.”
“I agree with you,” Councilmember Tom Digati said. “But I think the idea was maybe 100,000 in M-1 is appropriate, but maybe that number is smaller for the other zoning classifications.”
Marston replied, “I can tell you right now, looking at the 100,000 limits, that every one of these buildings has pretty significant impact to the town in M-1. They all create a lot of traffic or noise or … fill in the blank, just like we’ve all been talking about here for years.”
Marston urged the board to be far more proactive with all the zoning: “Let’s put a little more stringent limit on square footage. Let’s make it islandwide and let’s make it stick, because I don’t think we need this happening again.”
Bahleda replied, “I wholeheartedly agree.”
Madigan favored moving first to revise M-1 zoning, but then taking a longer look at all zoning.
Digati said the board started at 300,000 because it didn’t want to be too restrictive, but added, “I can’t think of a building of that size that would fit anywhere.”
Marston said, “If somebody can come in and prove to us that they can site-mitigate something that’s 70,000 square feet, I’m happy to listen, but as far as I’m concerned, it’s going to be a pretty hard lift.”
At the close of discussion, the board members referred the matter back to themselves, with the intent to initially go with reducing the permitted square footage to 65,000 for buildings in M-1 and M-2, and a plan to follow up with a review of all town zoning.
After the close of the meeting, Marston summarized: “A law is never done till it’s done. We’re always trying to make it better. I think we all have a lot of good ideas. We understand what our residents want. We understand what’s probably good for our island. We just have to find that happy medium to make everything work.”
Cathy Rayhill, spokesperson for Coalition for Responsible Economic Development for Grand Island (CRED4GI), is the first up to address the Town Board.