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Dismissal of lawsuit on ECC North project bolsters plans

A lawsuit challenging a proposed $30 million academic building at Erie Community College’s North Campus in Amherst did not exactly hold up the plans, and Erie County expects to pick an architectural firm within the next few weeks.

Bids by contractors seeking to manage the construction must be submitted by Jan. 20.

For supporters of the project, the dismissal of the lawsuit Thursday in State Supreme Court cleared away doubts that it might not happen.

“I hope this eliminates any further delays,” said Raymond F. Gallagher, a member of the college’s board of trustees. “It’s been a good five years since the project was basically approved.”

State Supreme Court Justice Deborah A. Chimes ruled that the three plaintiffs who sued the county and the college – former County Executive Joel A. Giambra, ECC student Wil Turner and Buffalo Common Council Member Joseph Golombek Jr. of the North District – did not have legal standing to mount a court challenge.

Chimes dismissed the case without elaborating on her decision.

While Giambra said he would appeal, college and county officials expressed confidence that construction of the new science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, building would begin a long-overdue upgrade of ECC’s most populous campus.

“I think it certainly will help lead to a revitalization of North Campus,” said County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz. “The construction of the new building at the North Campus will signal once again that there’s a commitment by the county to all three campuses. We’re trying to strengthen the entire college.”

Poloncarz and ECC President Jack F. Quinn Jr. said the lawsuit did not prevent the college and the county from moving forward with the project.

“I don’t think it damaged the timeline in any serious way,” Quinn said.

The new facility will be the most expensive construction project in the history of the college, which serves about 12,000 students.

Supporters of the project believe that it will keep more Erie County students from pursuing community college degrees in other counties – a scenario that annually costs local municipalities millions of dollars in charge-back fees.

The full-time equivalent of nearly 2,000 students from Erie County attended community colleges other than ECC in 2013-14. More than half of them – 1,376 – went to Niagara County Community College in Sanborn. NCCC received $3.4 million in Erie County taxpayer money in 2013-14. And most of the Erie County residents taking courses at NCCC were enrolled in programs – including many in the STEM fields – that are currently offered at ECC. Eight of the 10 most popular programs for Erie County residents at NCCC are available in Amherst, the town from which NCCC draws most of its Erie County students.

ECC officials believe that Erie County residents are attracted to NCCC primarily by its newer facilities, including a dormitory built in 2008 and a center for its culinary arts, hospitality and tourism programs in 2012.

Genesee Community College, which had the second-most Erie County students, with 280, costing the county $667,364 in charge-backs, plans to invest $24 million in a new student center and other improvements to its Batavia campus.

Thursday’s court ruling could lead to more development around ECC in Amherst, as well.

In 2011, the Amherst Town Board approved plans for an $18 million, three-story student housing complex on Youngs Road across the street from ECC. But the local builder, Zaepfel Development, has been hesitant to begin construction until the new academic building is a certainty.

“We’re still sitting on it,” said James A. Zaepfel, founder and president. “A lot of it was hinging on that lawsuit.”

The new building means “that the campus is going to be there, and I’m sure they’re going to spend some money on the rest of the campus, which needs it,” he added.

Zaepfel also said the combination of a new academic facility and student housing will help keep Erie County students from going to other campuses.

“They want the idea of living away from home. That’s one of the reasons they go to Niagara. Niagara has some nice living spaces over there, and they’re building more,” he said.

But Giambra and others contend that putting the new facility in Amherst, instead of in downtown Buffalo, will be a costly mistake with negative consequences for years to come.

“It’s promoting sprawl,” he said.

The lawsuit helped rekindle a debate over the future of ECC that Giambra started during his time as county executive, when he advocated for the three campuses of the college to be merged into a single downtown campus.

Poloncarz said the community prefers a three-campus system. The idea of single campus in Buffalo may be good in principle, but is neither practical, nor affordable, he added. “The one thing Mr. Giambra has never actually discussed is the cost,” Poloncarz said.

Lawyer Richard G. Berger – who represented Giambra, Turner and Golombek – sought to force the college and the county to pursue a full environmental review of the project. County officials told the state Department of Environmental Conservation in July that the proposed academic building will have no significant environmental effects.

A full review would have forced the county to hold public hearings on the ramifications of building in Amherst.

Now, Giambra and others will have to rely on a higher court to determine whether, or how much, the ECC debate will continue. “We’re not going to stop,” Giambra said. “I’m going to continue to try and fight to get a realistic hearing in the courts.”