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Town, developer deny charges that Whole Foods properties are underassessed

In its continuing effort to oppose a grocery store project that has already won town approval, Brighton Grassroots has issued a statement this week charging that the town has undercharged the developers, Daniele Family Cos., by hundreds of thousands of dollars in taxes.

At the same time, a group describing itself as business owners in the area, Save Monroe Ave., filed on Friday another in a series of lawsuits to oppose the project. The suit in Monroe County Supreme Court is attempting to get the state Transportation Department to release documents the group requested under the Freedom of Information Law. The two groups have sued the town as well.

The town supervisor and the developer both said the leader of Brighton Grassroots, Brighton resident Howie Jacobson, is wrong in his assertions.

Jacobson said in a statement that when Daniele Family purchased Clover Lanes and Mamasan’s parcels to expand the footprint of their Whole Foods project, they paid a total of $9.5 million, but the town didn’t increase the properties’ assessments to reflect that new market value.

Both properties have been assessed at just one-quarter of their true value, he contends.

“This special treatment results in the Daniele Family paying less than its fair share of the real property tax burden, and forces all other town taxpayers to pay more than their fair share of taxes, effectively subsidizing the Danieles’ project,” Jacobson wrote. He asserts that the Danieles should have paid $900,000 in taxes more than they’ve been assessed over the last four years.

But Town Supervisor William Moehle said Jacobson is just wrong about the way commercial properties are assessed.

“What a developer pays on a speculative basis on a future development isn’t the fair market value,” Moehle said. “Mr. Jacobson isn’t an assessor and, of course, neither am I.”

Moehle also denied an implication of the release: “The suggestion is I somehow directed or caused this special deal.” He said he has no influence in assessments and the town assessor acts independently.

Danny Daniele, president and owner of Daniele Family Cos., responded to Jacobson’s statement by saying, “It may benefit Howie to do some research and learn that unlike residential homes, commercial land is not based on sale prices.”

Moehle said opposition to the Whole Foods project (which includes a 50,000-square-foot grocery store, a drive-through Starbucks and a number of retail businesses, including restaurants) is actually the cause of reduced revenue for the town.

“The project is estimated to generate $400,000 a year when complete. In fact, that’s what we’re losing because of this frivolous series of lawsuits,” Moehle said.

Daniele added, “Our focus is on creating a new development which will more than double those property tax revenues for the community to almost a half million dollars per year.  The sooner we build it, the sooner the community will benefit. …Perhaps Howie should focus on growing the community rather than suing it.”

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Grassroots group readies for referendum on Whole Foods project, despite hurdles

Brighton Grassroots is trying to raise support for a referendum that could impact the Whole Foods Grocery store project proposed by the Daniele Family Companies.

The group, represented by long-time public relations executive Howie Jacobson, has taken out a full-page advertisement in Thursday’s edition of the Brighton Pittsford Post informing residents about a potential referendum vote on the project.

“We’re not telling them how to vote, we’re letting them know you can absolutely have a vote,” Jacobson said.

The vote, however, would only take place after a series of actions, at least one of which is being debated in a civil lawsuit right now. Brighton Grassroots has sued the town government over the issue of moving the Auburn walking trail onto private residential land at the back of the project so a Whole Foods supermarket and other businesses can be built on Monroe Avenue between Clover Street and the Interstate 590 on ramp. Jacobson asserts the town is legally required to make a resolution to either abandon the land for the trail or transfer it.

Once the trial results in the town making that resolution, he said, residents would have 30 days to collect 1,000 signatures that would result in a referendum.

“We’re bound and determined to have this go to a vote because the residents of Brighton have a right to decide,” Jacobson said. He is certain the court will rule in favor of the project’s opponents, and expects a decision in the first quarter of 2019.

Attempts to reach the town planning director for comment were unsuccessful.

“We are letting the residents of Brighton know that we need to be ready. As soon as the resolution is passed, we have 30 days to get the petition signed and then there will be a vote in 75 days,”  Jacobson said.

Jacobson said he doesn’t favor letting the land go idle, but he is opposed to the project because he believes it will worsen traffic on the corridor that already sees heavy traffic. “There’s a way to build a beautiful something there that minimizes traffic increase and doesn’t maximize it,” he said.

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The Whole Foods project: Where we are now

Anyone who has driven on Monroe Avenue in the vicinity of Clover Street knows that traffic near the Brighton and Pittsford town line can be more than annoying, especially during peak shopping times.

It can feel like all 49,000 cars that travel that corridor each day are vying with your car for the roadway.

The experience can even be dangerous as cars leaving businesses on the south side of Monroe Avenue turn left to go west, crossing heavy traffic eastbound on Monroe or spilling off the I-490 ramps.

So three years ago, when the Daniele Family Companies proposed building a Whole Foods where the family’s former Mario’s Restaurant was on the north side of Monroe Ave., the proposal struck many people as impossible. With what many consider the “mother ship” of the Wegmans chain just down the street in Pittsford, the need for another grocery store along that stretch of Monroe Avenue wasn’t clear. Many people could only focus on how the project would make an already bad traffic situation even worse.

This month the project draws closer to a resolution. But the project continues to cause debate, stirred up most recently at a July 18 Planning Board public hearing.

Some people who spoke at the hearing brought up issues such as whether plantings and fences would shield their homes from headlights of the cars patronizing the project’s stores. But others rehashed issues that have been discussed for many months, according to Ramsay Boehner, planner for the town of Brighton. He characterized some speakers at the hearing as opposing the project because they don’t like Amazon, the new owner of Whole Foods.

“Just because people don’t like a project isn’t reasonable grounds for denying a project,” Boehner said. Studies the Daniele family submitted show traffic would increase by 500 cars a day. There would be a slight delay during key times, Boehner said. “We studied the delay and decided the delay is acceptable.”

Owing to concerns from residents and town officials, the project has changed some since it was first proposed.

“I would admit it’s gotten better,” said Anthony Daniele, a spokesman for the family.

In March, the town granted incentive zoning status to the project, allowing it to have more density than would normally be allowed by zoning regulations, in exchange for providing benefits to the town. Those agreed-upon benefits include improving and maintaining a walking trail on the backside of the project following a former rail line from the Pittsford town line (near the lululemon athletica store east of the project) north to Highland Avenue about two miles away. Some wooded property behind the proposed grocery store will also be left “forever wild.” Another benefit will be the “access management plan” the Danieles will provide on the south side of Monroe Avenue—a backside road connecting the businesses and a single egress point on Monroe at a new traffic light, eliminating the risky left turns from multiple driveways.

“Right now what you have is a dangerous situation, where people are making left-hand turns and getting T-boned,” Boehner said.

The project as it stands now includes a 50,000-square-foot Whole Foods grocery store, a 22,000-square-foot mini-plaza, a 2,000-square-foot Starbucks store with a drive-thru, and two additional buildings, sized at 5,850 and 3,600 square feet. The site map suggests those last buildings might be restaurants, as they’re shown with patios. To accomplish this on the 7.4-acre site, the Danieles would knock down the former Mario’s, the former Clover Lanes and—after it moves across the street to the former Pizza Hut —Mamasan’s restaurant. There would be two traffic lights and two access points into the development. There would also be a monument sign, meaning the type of large roadside sign seen along Jefferson Road in Henrietta that announces all the stores in the development.

What’s not part of the plan anymore is a two-building project comprising a larger plaza and a grocery store and entry points from either Clover Street or Westfall Road.

“We’ve been working on it and refining it for three years,” Daniele said. “We’ve been listening to the neighbors, incorporating many of their suggestions. Some of them have been very good and some have been far-fetched.”

Daniele said he hoped a decision could be reached by town officials in the next month or two.

Indeed, Boehner said, “We’re getting toward the end of it.” Once the town planning board and town board come to an agreement and sign off on the project, building permits would be the next step. The planning board meets again on Aug. 15.

Howie Jacobson, a public relations and business consultant who lives in Brighton, says the project still isn’t sized correctly to prevent harmful traffic impact. Jacobson said he got involved a few months ago when exhausted opponents calling themselves “Brighton Grassroots” asked for his help. He created a limited liability corporation for the group and a website including documents and videos related to the project. He continues to challenge the notion that traffic increases and delays would be minimal.

“The usage of that property is really the big part of that issue,” Jacobson said. “The town focused on square footage only (in the traffic study); they didn’t focus on usage, which is really a very rudimentary and naïve way of evaluating what’s going to happen on a piece of property.”

Jacobson said the town should require a traffic study that includes usage, not just square footage. “If they were building a 50,000-square foot mattress store, it’s a lot different than a 50,000-square-foot grocery store,” he said.

Daniele said traffic drawn by Whole Foods should be felt less than Mario’s’ traffic was, because it will be more spread out across the day instead of focused on the dinner hours.

But Jacobson said groceries aren’t the only draw now that Amazon owns the chain.

“Whole Foods is not only selling food, but it’s an Amazon Prime pickup and delivery site,” he said, noting that in some Whole Foods stores Amazon Prime members can rent lockers, much like post-office boxes, for receiving packages. “They are doing what any good retailer would do, (which) is try to drive (business) traffic. Their research study, which they released a couple of months ago, shows there’s an increase of 11 percent in quick trips to Whole Foods” in stores that introduce the Amazon Prime lockers, he said.

Despite assertions from the Daniele family that the grocery store would not become an Amazon delivery site, Jacobson said, “It’s going to happen; they don’t have any control over that.”

Daniele responded: “The Danieles application and the use that has been granted through the incentive zoning is for a grocery store use and at no time was any other use applied for for that building.” If Whole Foods wants to add an Amazon delivery site, it will have to gain separate approvals from the town, he said.

Boehner agreed, stating, “They did not apply for that under the incentive zoning. It’s not included under the incentive zoning, and it’s not permitted.” He added, though, that the grocery store’s owners could request approval from the town to become a package center later.

While the various parties don’t necessarily agree on what will happen, they’ve certainly tried to sway hearts and minds with their description of the facts.

Daniele said of the July hearing, “Most of the comments were driven by the opposition group disseminating misinformation and trying to incite people to believe this is a mega-size project.”

Some of the paid ads and emails Jacobson has sent out about the project have called the Whole Foods Project “supersized.” While a 50,000-square-foot supermarket is larger than what is allowed under Brighton’s zoning unless an amendment is granted through a formal process, that size store is just a fraction of the typical Tops or Wegmans store.

“You can fit almost three of our Whole Foods inside the Pittsford Wegmans,” Daniele said.

And Wegmans has been a favorite target of Daniele’s, as he repeatedly suggests the grocery store chain is behind the opposition to the Whole Foods project, even pointing out that CEO Colleen Wegman lives in the same Brighton neighborhood as Jacobson. A Wegmans spokeswoman would not comment on the matter. In 2016, Wegmans did express its concerns to town officials about potential traffic increases caused by the proposed project.

Jacobson said Colleen Wegman does live near him, but they are not immediate neighbors. “You could make the same case that the Danieles don’t live in Brighton, so who cares?” he said.

Jacobson said town officials have not been as forthcoming as they should be about changes in the project and the process. He charged that the incentive zoning isn’t being applied correctly —that the Danieles should be providing much more in the way to benefits for the town, given the profits they expect to make on the project.

Town Supervisor William Moehle said Jacobson is mistaken. The project provides $1.7 million in amenities — a trail longer than the current Brickyard Trail near Town Hall — and an access management plan for the south side of the road that doesn’t even include the cost of avoided car crashes.

“The amenities and the benefits they will provide to the community, plus the fact that this project will generate full tax revenue from day one, is more than sufficient,” Moehle said. Under traditional zoning, the Danieles had rights to build a 70,000-square-foot project and could have asked for and received county tax abatement, he said.

One thing Daniele and Jacobson agree upon is that the Brighton Town Board should do the right thing.

“Our mission at Brighton Grassroots to convince the planning board that they have to do the right thing for the community,” Jacobson said. “Something needs to be changed so this is downsized, so this is rightsized, so our community is not left with the mess that we know will happen.”

Daniele said, “We believe this project has gone through the very thorough review of several different boards in the town of Brighton. We worked with the board to address neighbors’ (concerns.) We believe this is a good project. We would hope the board will do the right thing and approve the project.”

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