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SEQRA Must Be Complied With Before Chautauqua's Amphitheater can be demolished

What's an Institution, Anyway?

Seventy miles south of Buffalo is a revered meeting place where a multitude of America’s deepest thinkers and political elite have shared their ideas. Its stage has been graced by historic figures such as Booker T. Washington, Susan B. Anthony, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. More recently, retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, former Vice President Al Gore, and documentarian Ken Burns, have offered their insight on contemporary topics from its century-old platform.

The irreplaceable historic site is “The Amp,” the Chautauqua Institution’s outdoor amphitheater, which was aptly described in the following fashion in 1989 when the Chautauqua Institution obtained the lofty status of a National Historic Landmark:

"This structure is at the center of all Chautauqua activities. It is here that the community gathers for daily lectures and concerts and religious services on Sundays. Few podiums in this country have held such a distinguished group of speakers and performers."

Despite its role for over 120 years as the spiritual heart of this lakeside community, the Chautauqua Institution’s Board of Trustees is determined to demolish and replace The Amp. Pleas to preserve the nationally-recognized facility, expressed by the New York State Historic Preservation Office and regional preservation organizations, seem not to have deterred the board from its plan to demolish “The Amp” at the close of the 2015 summer season.

But the Chautauqua Institution’s leadership is not above the law. Although exempt from the local municipality’s zoning requirements, the 800-acre campus of the world-renowned cultural and education community is not the board’s fiefdom over which it exercises unfettered control.

Any decision to demolish and replace The Amp must be preceded by a review of the proposed action by the Town Board of the Town of Chautauqua pursuant to the “Chautauqua Lake Local Waterfront Revitalization Program” [LWRP]. That local law was enacted by the town in 2008 and went into effect in 2011 following adoption of the plan by nine municipalities bordering the lake. Significantly, the LWRP review process will trigger the comprehensive environmental assessment mandated by SEQRA, the State Environmental Quality Review Act.

The Town of Chautauqua adopted the LWRP for the purpose of preserving, enhancing and beneficially using the natural and man-made resources of the town’s unique waterfront areas, including the Chautauqua Institution. Whenever a proposed action is located within the boundaries of the town’s waterfront area, the Town Board is required to make a determination that the project “is consistent with the LWRP policy and conditions.”

It is difficult to conceive of the Chautauqua Town Board rationally concluding that the planned demolition of The Amp is an action “consistent with” the LWRP. The second of thirteen policies identified in the town’s local law reflects a commitment to protecting historically significant buildings. More specifically, Policy Number 2 expresses a desire to, “Preserve historic resources of the waterfront area of Chautauqua Lake.” The accompanying narrative highlights the fact that the Chautauqua Institution and its contributing buildings are listed as a National Historic Landmark District. Notably, The Amp was the first structure identified in the application that led to the historic landmark status.

Of equal importance, the Town Board will be obligated by State law to comply with the requirements of SEQRA before determining whether demolition of The Amp is consistent with LWRP policy. SEQRA expressly includes “resources of historic or aesthetic significance” in its definition of “environment.” Also, because The Amp project is occurring wholly within an historic district listed on the National Register of Historic Places, there will be a presumption that a comprehensive Environmental Impact Statement is required. The EIS process will provide the public and interested governmental agencies with an opportunity to meaningfully address alternatives to demolishing The Amp, and to comment on the reasonableness of mitigation measures.

Thankfully, the Chautauqua Town Board had the foresight to adopt the LWRP and include the Chautauqua Institution within the boundaries of the local waterfront area. Of equal importance, SEQRA mandates that a proposed action that might adversely impact a significant historic resource, such as the proposed demolition of this irreplaceable treasure, be preceded by a comprehensive environmental review.

Within this legal framework, which is intended to protect and preserve New York’s natural and man-made environment, there is hope that The Amp will be saved for the enrichment and enjoyment of future generations.

Mr. Giacalone, a semi-retired lawyer and East Aurora resident, comments on land use and environmental matters at

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