Several residents and business owners say they have been harassed and intimidated after refusing to sell their properties to a company with development rights near the Seneca Niagara Casino.
Property owners within a 142-acre development target area for Niagara Falls Redevelopment told The Buffalo News they have experienced various forms of torment.
*One man said workers clearing his neighborhood in the development tract dumped brush and garbage on land he owns.
*A business owner said that Roger Trevino, executive vice president of the redevelopment company, threatened to block access to his business and tried to instigate a fight.
*Another man who has owned his home for 15 years said he was burglarized nine times in nine months after he told two real estate representatives early last year that he would not sell his house.
These and other property owners also said Trevino and people with ties to the development company have threatened that their homes and businesses will be taken through eminent domain if they don't sell.
"They have some unruly tactics they keep hammering me with," said Russell S. Franjoine, who owns two pieces of property the company wants to buy. "I'm kind of at my limit."
Although Trevino confirms that his company wants to purchase the properties and that he is "passionate" about the project, he insisted he never intimidated anyone. He also says no one associated with him is dumping debris on other property or breaking into any homes.
"I know what I've done is straight up," Trevino said.
He said he believes Franjoine is encouraging other property owners to complain so they can pressure the company into paying them more money for their properties.
Niagara Falls Redevelopment, a firm backed by Manhattan billionaire Howard Millstein, has an agreement with the City of Niagara Falls that gives it the right to develop 142 acres behind the casino.
Over the past two years, the company and others working on its behalf bought 440 parcels on the tract and cleared much of the land.
Niagara County real estate records show that most of the residential and vacant properties sold for $10,000 to $50,000, and commercial properties went for well above the assessed valuation.
About 100 properties remain unsold to the redevelopment company or associated firms, Trevino said, and some holdouts are seeking considerably more money in what has become a high-stakes game of real estate speculation.
The entire 142-acre tract would be much more valuable if packaged together because it's near the casino. If the tract remains in pieces, though, development would mean headaches for other developers and investors, city officials have said.
Franjoine owns two properties in the tract and lives at one of them. .
He said he doesn't want to sell either of his properties, although he named a price of $400,000 when he said he felt pressured by Trevino more than a year ago. He said he now wants $1 million.
"You sold your splash park and got crazy money," Franjoine said he told Trevino. "If I'm going to sell my place, I want crazy money."
He was referring to Seneca Gaming Corp.'s $18 million down payment last August to a company controlled by Niagara Falls Redevelopment and another $75 million the company is seeking in court. The company purchased the splash park in 2003 for $3 million.
>Pressure to sell
Several property owners who talked to The News told similar stories of extreme pressure to sell, with many encounters ending in shouting matches or threats by those wishing to buy the properties.
Franjoine filed a police report Jan. 2 after his cousin, John Scull, said he saw men he had observed working for Niagara Falls Redevelopment throwing wood and trash onto a vacant lot that Franjoine owned and recently cleared.
Trevino denied this and said Franjoine has dumped debris on neighboring NFR land.
Scull sold property he owns on Falls Street to the development company in 2005.
"They threatened me and intimidated me before they ended up buying it," Scull said. "[Trevino] outright threatened me and told me I couldn't open a coffee shop because he'd shut me down. He said, 'You can't build nothing down here unless we approve it.' "
Franjoine said company employees have called the city's Inspections Department on him, sworn at him and threatened to take his property through eminent domain.
Art Garabedian, who runs a wood shop on property near Portage Road, said he is asking for $1.5 million.
Garabedian said Trevino came to his business in August and September and tried to block access to his wood shop, which is landlocked and uses a driveway for entrance from Portage Road.
During the latest incident, Garabedian said, Trevino cursed at him and tried to instigate a fight with his former son-in-law.
"He called us low-life woodworkers," Garabedian said. "My whole life is woodworking. I take pride in my woodwork, and for him to call us low-life woodworkers is worse than him swearing at me."
He said incidents with Trevino stopped after he called a representative of Niagara Falls Redevelopment in Manhattan.
Leszek Sniezek, who has lived in two homes on 15th Street for nearly 30 years, said he has been approached twice with offers for his home of 15 years. After he refused to sell to two people who identified themselves as "working for someone that wants to buy your home," he said he was the victim of several burglaries.
His home was broken into nine times between last February and October, he said, but in most of the break-ins, usually small things were taken. Although he lost a television and a bike, the burglar also took the last three pieces of a loaf of bread and a soda from his refrigerator.
Sniezek, an usher and lector at nearby Holy Trinity Catholic Church, said that he doesn't know who is breaking into his home but that he had been the victim of a break-in only once before last year.
"They took four shoes, one from each pair," Sniezek said. "These people are not here to burglarize. They are here to aggravate me because they want to buy me out."
Sniezek said he has never met Trevino -- and Trevino vehemently denied anyone with ties to Niagara Falls Redevelopment would be involved with such incidents.
Trevino also pointed out that Community Missions, which provides food to the homeless, is around the corner on Falls Street.
Sniezek said he has reported every burglary to the city's Police Department, although top officials in the department said last week they weren't familiar with the case. Detective Capt. Ernest C. Palmer said he isn't aware of any complaints of harassment or intimidation from employees of Niagara Falls Redevelopment.
>If the price is right
Others with property in the tract said they have been treated fairly and respectfully by the development company, although one said money is clearly the key motivator.
Bryan C. Kuhns said three generations of his family have owned and operated Kuhns Moving & Storage at 247 Tenth St., and he doesn't want to sell until he gets the right price.
Kuhns said Trevino has threatened him with eminent domain and tried to annoy him by putting up a barrier behind his property so trucks can't drive over vacant property to get to his loading docks.
"They told me, 'If you don't sell you're crazy. You're not going to get the kind of money you want. We'll just take it through eminent domain,' " Kuhns said. "I realize [Trevino] has got a job to do. I don't get excited."
Kuhns said he's familiar with the city's contract with the redevelopment company and knows the company doesn't have the power of eminent domain. He said he "doesn't doubt they've bamboozled a few people."
Bruce Andrews, owner of Great Lakes Real Estate, is one of the brokers Niagara Falls Redevelopment is using to negotiate property sales. He said he has been involved with about 90 of the transactions.
"There's been times I've told [Trevino] some of these properties I wouldn't pay $7,000 for, and he's paid $25,000 and $30,000," Andrews said. "He's been way more than generous."
Carl Costanzo and Grant Babcock have both signed land sale agreements with the development company and said the experience was positive.
Babcock is the director of operations at Community Missions, which owns several properties Niagara Falls Redevelopment would like to buy. The nonprofit signed an agreement last year for the Falls Street soup kitchen.
Costanzo said he was a neighbor of Franjoine and Scull and sold his Falls Street home to Niagara Falls Redevelopment in 2005 for $27,000 more than its assessed value of $16,900. He said he was able to buy a better home with the money and didn't feel intimidated by Trevino. He also said Trevino has allowed him to slowly remove belongings and fixtures from the property.
One of the biggest fears of the property owners is the threat of eminent domain, a court-ordered sale or takeover of property.
Mayor Vince Anello said he received seven calls in the last three years from property owners in the tract specifically worried about that threat.
"Regarding this fear of eminent domain, I've told them that would not take place until a project was presented to the city that had a public benefit," the mayor said.
City Planner Thomas DeSantis said he has told several people that it would take about a year of approvals and public hearings for the city to decide to exercise its right of land acquisition for a specific project.
City Corporation Counsel Damon DeCastro said an agreement between the city and the development company -- signed in 1997 and updated in 2003 -- calls for $110 million in development on the tract by the end of this year.
A specific project hasn't been formally proposed, though, so the development company is so far left at the mercy of the holdout property owners.
That could soon change. DeCastro said his office received a proposed new contract from the development company Monday that would be a "shorter, more concise" agreement that "reduces their responsibility" in developing the tract.
Since there has been no update on what is planned for the development tract, he said, the city is not prepared to have its Urban Renewal Agency use the power of eminent domain on behalf of the development company.
"We do not feel [Niagara Frontier Redevelopment as yet has] a project with a public purpose," DeCastro said. "Without that public purpose, we can't even consider eminent domain."