Mayor Anthony M. Masiello, in what could be a breakthrough in his six-year dispute with Hickory Woods homeowners, is preparing a $1.5 million buyout offer so residents can move from their contaminated neighborhood.
The offer, the first fully funded proposal to come from the city, would allow families in the South Buffalo subdivision to sell their homes for fair market value prices and leave the neighborhood, where the soil is contaminated.

The buyout plan, made possible by about $1 million in new money from the city, would go a long way toward fulfilling Masiello's promise to make the residents of Hickory Woods "whole."

"It's pretty encouraging," said Richard Ammerman, president of Hickory Woods Residents for a Clean Environment. "It sounds like the money is there and those are the kinds of dollars the city would need to fund an adequate value protection plan. Of course, the devil is in the details."

What makes this offer different from others floated by the city is that all the funding is in place.

"I want to see the money in the bank, but I think it's good news," said Richard Lippes, a lawyer for about 60 Hickory Woods homeowners. "This is what the mayor promised, so it's good news that it's finally happening. This has been a long struggle for residents who have been trapped there."

Hickory Woods, a community of about 60 homes, was built during the late 1980s and 1990s on land bought and developed by the city. Since then, it became clear that city officials knew, or should have known, about contaminated soil on the site.

The mayor's offer, if it succeeds, would settle one of the homeowners' major demands - the relocation of the 40 or so families who want out of Hickory Woods.

Masiello said he wants the Hickory Woods issue settled before he leaves office, and expressed confidence the city finally has the money it needs to make the buyout plan work for homeowners.

"It's a personal thing for me, and I want it done right," said Masiello, one of two mayors to oversee the construction of homes in Hickory Woods. "The fact of the matter is we have to fix this and I want it done on my watch."

The centerpiece of the deal is $800,000 Rep. Brian M. Higgins, D-Buffalo, added to the federal highway bill that President Bush signed Wednesday. That money will go to city streets projects and will free up at least $1 million in federal community block grant funds that now can go to Hickory Woods.

The balance of the money, about $500,000, is expected to come from the state as part of a pledge Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver made to Higgins last year.

Together, it totals $1.5 million, which Higgins and Masiello believe is enough to finance a buyout plan for the families who want to leave Hickory Woods.

"It's a collaborative effort," Higgins said of the two pots of money. "That should be more than enough for a value protection program and other physical improvements to the neighborhood."

Since Higgins left Albany for Washington, D.C., homeowners have wondered if Silver would honor his commitment to Hickory Woods. Higgins' successor in the Assembly said he spoke to Silver in March and again last month and received assurances the money is still there.

"He was very clear," said Assemblyman Mark Schroeder, D-Buffalo. "The speaker said he's absolutely committed to that $500,000."

Charles Carrier, a spokesman for Silver, confirmed that Silver is still committed to providing that money.

On top of the $1.5 million, the city has set aside $1 million in federal housing funds that could be used to help low- and moderate-income home buyers interested in moving to Hickory Woods.

If Masiello can sell homeowners on his offer, it would mark a significant step forward in the cleanup and redevelopment of Hickory Woods, one of the city's first attempts at reusing brownfields.

There are other signs of progress.

Next door, private developers have completed about 70 percent of their $15 million cleanup of the old Republic Steel and Donner-Hanna Coke sites, a 213-acre parcel of land that is home to an inactive hazardous waste site.

The project, one of the most expensive cleanups in Buffalo's history and one of the biggest brownfields projects in the state, covers an area the size of 15 city blocks or an 18-hole golf course.

The developers, a partnership known as Steelfields, plan to reuse the former steel plant for offices and other commercial uses.

Just a stone's throw away, the state and city are putting the finishing touches on the cleanup and reconstruction of Boone Playground, a city-owned park once contaminated with arsenic.

The city also set aside $240,000 for the cleanup of six vacant, contaminated lots in Hickory Woods.

"We want to improve the attractiveness of the neighborhood," said Masiello. State health officials acknowledge Hickory Woods is contaminated with lead and possible cancer-causing chemicals, but say the "average" levels are not high enough to pose health risks.

A team of experts at the University at Buffalo disagrees and has criticized the state report, calling it incomplete.