Seven Days: The Straight Dope From the Week That Was
by Geoff Kelly & Buck Quigley
A busy week in the courts:
Our friends at the Niagara Falls Reporter have a story in their latest issue about a suit filed in New York State Supreme Court on June 21 that charges the Empire State Development Corporation with fraud in its use of eminent domain to seize the former Splash Park property in downtown Niagara Falls for the benefit of the Seneca Niagara Gaming Corporation.
The plaintiffs, a partnership of developers called Fallsite LLC that previously held title to the property, argue that ESDC is empowered by the state’s gambling compact to use eminent domain on behalf of the Seneca Nation of Indians only, not on behalf of SNGC, which are legally two very separate entities. ESDC seized and transfered the land directly to the gaming corporation in violation of the compact, and furthermore rendered the property ineligible for gambling, since only property owned directly by the Seneca Nation can be sovereign land.
Eminent domain allows the state to seize land only for the benefit of the community. As the Reporter’s Mike Hudson notes in this week’s issue, however, the SNGC has failed to develop some of the city’s most valuable property: “Not only has the acquisition of the property not benefited the Niagara Falls community, it is difficult to make a case that even the casino itself has been a benefit…Nearby restaurants and taverns have gone out of business in numbers, relatively few Niagara Falls residents work there, and the economic condition of the city has noticeably deteriorated since the casino was opened.”
The suit, filed by attorney John Bartolomei, who is a partner in Fallsite LLC, seeks to invalidate the 2006 agreement by which ESDC seized the property from the partnership.
Meantime, the state Supreme Court’s Appellate Division ruled last week that a suit filed by Buffalo attorney and Tea Party activist Jim Ostrowski should move forward. The suit argues that New York State routinely violates the state constitution’s prohibition on the loaning or gifting of state funds to private entities. In essence, the Appellate Division agreed that the state practice of filtering money to private entities through public benefit corporations such as Empire State Development Corporation does not necessarily pass constitutional muster.
Justice Michael Lynch of the Albany County State Supreme Court, where the suit was filed, dismissed the case earlier this year on the grounds that the plaintiffs lacked standing to sue. The appellate court decision means that case will move forward.
Finally, a lawsuit brought by developer Sam Savarino against the Elmwood Village Charter School—to which Savarino is landlord—for anticipatory breach of contract was dismissed on June 25. This spring Elmwood Village Charter School reached an agreement with the city to purchase PS #36 in Days Park in order to expand; Savarino also made an offer to the city for the building, which he would renovate to house a newly chartered institution, the West Buffalo Charter School. Savarino claims that the city, having decided in advance to sell the building to Elmwood Village Charter, cut corners in the bidding process to ensure that outcome, essentially deep-sixing his offer.
Savarino also argues that Elmwood Village Charter’s purchase of the building and expansion plans are rash, jeopardizing their long-term lease with his company for their current home on Elmwood Avenue. It’s that argument that was dismissed on Friday. Savarino’s Article 78 complaint alleging that the city violated its own bidding procedures continues.
Gus Macker and assault rifles:
A heavy police presence is no surprise at Buffalo’s annual Gus Macker three-on-three basketball tournament. It is, after all, a benefit for the Police Athletic League; moreover, tempers can get hot, on and off the court. But who called out the SWAT team? We’ll tell you who: Mayor Byron Brown’s nominee for police commissioner, Daniel Derenda, who has been acting commissioner since H. McCarthy Gipson was canned just after Christmas. All those coppers bearing assault rifles—and what an impression that must have made on suburban kids and their parents venturing into sunny downtown Buffalo last weekend—were paid time-and-a-half for their presence over the weekend, while the regular cops patroling the tournament for the most part took home regular pay. (And what would the SWAT unit do if a fight broke out? “Excuse me, sir, would you hold this AR-15 while I break up this donnybrook?”) Perhaps Buffalo police were on high alert because of the G-20 summit in nearby Toronto, but there’s a more prosaic explanation for the overtime boon: Derenda is himself a former SWAT team member.
Building a bigger duty-free
On Tuesday night, about 30 West Siders gathered in the driveway of the nearly vacant lot at 762 Columbus Parkway owned by former city councilman and state senator Al Coppola. (The driveway ends in a garage. Coppola fought the city for about ayear for permission to build a house on the lot; officials questioned his motive in proposing a new structure on a property slated for seizure for the proposed expansion of the Peace Bridge plaza.) They were there to meet Channel 2 News reporter Pete Gallivan, who is working on an in-depth piece (by TV standards) on the project, which entails a massive investment in an expansion of the plaza on the American side of the bridge, claiming at least 90 houses in an historic neighborhood. The ersatz town hall meeting was assembled by the outspoken Public Bridge Authority critic Kathy Mecca, who worried that if Gallivan did not meet the faces of opposition to the plaza expansion, he might be tempted to give more time and weight the the perespectives of its supporters, namely PBA general manager Ron Rienas and Congressman Brian Higgins, who has been aggressively arguing that the project, which has been publicly debated for more than a decade, must move forward.
The folks sitting in Coppola’s driveway Tuesday night could not have agreed less. One sentiment—that the expansion was all about building a bigger and more lucrative duty-free shop—was best expressed by Andy Goldstein, who argued that if such a massive investment were proposed for a big-box store in this or any other city neighborhood, it would never be permitted. “They’re basically knocking down houses to build a bigger store and a parking ramp to support it,” Goldstein said.
Bass Pro's fish stories, continued:
A few weeks ago we discussed a report by a Buffalo-based group called the Public Accountability Initiative that examines Bass Pro’s record of promises made versus promises kept in other cities that have subsidized the retail chain’s locations. Wherever Bass Pro goes, according to Andrew Stecker, the report’s author, it promises to lure tourists, to act as an anchor that will attract further investment, to create hundreds of jobs, and to contribute significantly to the municipal tax base.
North District Councilman Mike LoCurto asked Stecker to appear before the economic development committee on Tuesday, which he chairs, to answer questions about his findings, which essentially suggest that Bass Pro routinely fails to justify the subisidies they receive. Most of those present waxed cynical about the prospective benefits the big-box fishing outlet presents. “Hundreds of small businesses will have more of an impact on this city than one big box store,” said North District’s Joe Golombek, who has had nothing but hard words for the proposal since its inception. “If [Buffalo] was such a good deal for Bass Pro, they would already be here.”blog comments powered by Disqus
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