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Buffalo News,   February 15, 1999  by Patrick Lakamp

       Amherst still has not completed its $5 million purchase of the Sisters of St. Francis property, nine months after Gov. Pataki visited the parcel and promised money to help the town turn it into a major park.

       Negotiations continued late last week and appeared to be pointing toward a settlement between town and state officials, Town Attorney Phillip A. Thielman said.

       While town officials expect to complete the purchase, a nagging problem on the state's end of the deal has caused the delay. The negotiated resolution could determine whether Hutchinson Hose Company takes ownership of a small piece of the St. Francis parcel off Sheridan Drive. The fire company has coveted the parcel for years.

       In May, the state promised $2.5 million -- half the purchase price -- but later indicated it wanted the money used to buy only land, not buildings. The property at 400 Mill St., just north of the Village of Williamsville, includes the sprawling St. Mary of the Angels motherhouse. The state's stance meant the town was left to take ownership of the four-story motherhouse and the land around it.

       In turn, the state money was supposed to pay for some 68 acres, about 57 of which is usable. The land would become Amherst State Park.

       However, Northeastern Appraisal Associates of Williamsville estimated the value of the 68 acres to be about $1.14 million.

       That meant the state would pony up $2.5 million for a parcel worth less than half that amount.

       What's more, the Sisters of St. Francis religious order later said it intended to keep almost seven of the 68 acres to allow for future expansion of the St. Francis Home, Thielman said.

       The bottom line: The state's $2.5 million would buy a smaller parcel, about 61 acres, worth even less than the appraiser's initial estimate.

       "The appraisal came in lower than the state expected on the open space," Thielman said. "They have to justify spending $2.5 million."

       The appraiser estimated the value of the motherhouse on 11 acres to be $2.5 million. The 7.7-acre parcel along Sheridan Drive was valued at about $1 million and the 3.8-acre parcel along Mill Street at $230,000.

       As a result, officials from the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation now have their eyes on the 7.7 acres on Sheridan, Thielman said.

       Together, the 7.7 acres on Sheridan and the other 61 acres have a value of about $2 million, according to the Northeastern appraisal.

       That'll be hard to do for a parcel estimated to be worth just more than $1 million. If the state can acquire or obtain a conservation easement to the 7.7-acre Sheridan parcel as well, state officials can say they spent $2.5 million in state money to preserve about $2 million worth of open space, Thielman said.

       While the state would still spend more than the appraised value of the land, it would be close enough for state officials to approve the transaction, Thielman said.

       Thielman said the town wants to keep the 7.7 acres and not sell it to the state.

       Thielman declined to discuss Friday's meeting but afterward said, "It looks like we had a meeting of the minds."

       The final legal details need to be worked out, he said.

       "We're in negotiations to follow through with the plan to acquire the land," said Stephen C. Lewis, director of real property for the state parks agency.

       He declined to comment further.

       Sharon Rich, chief of staff of the district office of State Sen. Mary Lou Rath's, R-Williamsville, said, "We understand there's a problem with the appraisal, but we have no comment."

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