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City & Region

Judge orders halt to construction, demolition around Peace Bridge

BY: Robert J. McCarthy

Published: September 17, 2014, 08:15 PM in the Buffalo News

(the following article was not written by this site and is only reprinted here as a courtesy to our readers)

A judge Wednesday issued a temporary injunction against further work on state plans to build new ramps connecting the Niagara Thruway to the Peace Bridge as well as demolishing the former Episcopal Church Home. The action came in response to a lawsuit filed by Columbus Parkway neighbors.

The ruling by State Supreme Court Justice John F. O’Donnell stands as a preliminary victory for Peace Bridge area residents concerned about area air quality and the effects of the $22 million “Gateway Connections Improvement Project.”

According to attorney Arthur J. Giacalone, who represented the 10 neighbors filing the suit, the order now prohibits the state from any demolition work on the former nursing home complex sought for plaza expansion, and even from spending any state money on the proposed Gateway project.

The suit alleges that the state and City of Buffalo deliberately attempted “to avoid conducting the comprehensive environmental review required by state law.”

According to the suit:

• Officials failed to study the long-term impacts of projects identified in Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s June 2013 “Peace Bridge Understanding” agreement he announced with Canadian Ambassador Gary Doer following a bitter dispute over the pace of progress on the Buffalo side of the international span. The suit questions plans for plaza expansion and changes to the roadways and ramps servicing the U.S. plaza.

• Empire State Development violated environmental law by failing to take the mandated “hard look” at adverse impacts of Episcopal Church Home demolition on noise levels and the quality of life of nearby residents, and on the character of the surrounding neighborhood.

• The Common Council violated the state’s Open Meetings Law and its own procedures during a July 29 special session approving transfer of city land to the state Department of Transportation.

Neither Giacalone nor Kathleen Mecca, lead plaintiff in the case, would offer any comments beyond a press release and the court documents.

Sam Hoyt, regional president of the Empire State Development Corp., late Wednesday defended the state’s role.

“Attorneys … are reviewing the order, but are confident that the process has been followed and that we will be able to continue our work on the Gateway Project,” he said. “After years of false starts and gridlock, we are finally making progress on this incredibly important project that will eliminate congestion, improve traffic flow and have a positive impact on the Western New York economy.”

But Giacalone’s papers argue that “government agencies continue to be engaged in stratagems to avoid consideration of the cumulative environmental impacts of the projects meant to expand the U.S. plaza and alter the roadways and ramps leading to the Peace Bridge.

“The failure to comply with the letter and spirit of the state’s environmental review law has had, and will continue to have,” he argued, “a severe and detrimental impact on the health, well-being, and quality of life of the petitioners and other residents of the densely populated Lower West Side neighborhood of Buffalo that adjoins the U.S. entrance to the Peace Bridge.”

The temporary restraining order follows an August report in The Buffalo News outlining remarks made by New York officials associated with the Peace Bridge Authority that refer to the state’s interaction with potential opponents of the project. Hoyt, also chairman of the Peace Bridge Authority, is heard on a recording quickly correcting himself after using the word “brainwashed” and that neighbors had been “nudged along” to support the project.

Hoyt eventually apologized for what he called a wrong choice of words.

On the same recording, Maria C. Lehman, state program manager for the Peace Bridge at Empire State Development, discussed working with Common Council members who have helped in the past, while avoiding North Council Member Joseph Golombek. Golombek had called for removing truck traffic from the bridge. Lehman also discussed ways to avoid public scrutiny of items before the Council, according to the recording.

Cuomo announced in March of 2013 a $22 million project aiming to reconfigure access to the Buffalo plaza to reduce congestion and improve traffic flow.

Attorneys for both sides of the dispute are slated to appear before O’Donnell on Oct. 2.

email: rmccarthy@buffnews.com