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Judge rejects effort to halt Chautauqua Amphitheater demolition

Supporters of saving the 1893 Chautauqua Amphitheater have been rebuffed again.

State Supreme Court Justice Frank A. Sedita III declined Thursday to grant a preliminary injunction that would have halted work leading to the demolition of the Amphitheater. In doing so, Sedita also lifted the temporary restraining order he issued on Jan. 25.

The Chautauqua Institution said in a statement that its leaders are “pleased” with Sedita’s decision for upholding the Town of Chautauqua in issuing the construction permits in early January that critics sought to halt.

“Our goal has not changed: Create a state-of-the-art, renewed Amp that will carry on the facility’s legacy as the heart and soul of our institution for generations to come,” the statement said.

But Brian Berg, who heads the Committee to Preserve the Historic Chautauqua Amphitheater, expressed regret over the decision.

“The court’s decision to allow Chautauqua Institution to proceed with destroying Chautauqua’s most sacred structure and one of the nation’s most historic places is a travesty,” Berg said. “We believe history will judge Chautauqua Institution President Tom Becker, the board of trustees and the Amp’s donors not as they believe – by the structure they are building – but by the one they are destroying.”

Sedita’s ruling was in response to a lawsuit filed by the committee and five property owners. They claimed the institution failed to comply with the Waterfront Consistency Law, a local ordinance in the Town of Chautauqua, and the State Environmental Review Act, a state law, which require preserving historical resources and protecting the environment.

The institution, the Chautauqua Town Board and the town’s code enforcement officer successfully argued the Amphitheater project was exempt from those requirements. They maintained the project was “restorative” in nature and did not destroy the character of the Amphitheater despite the fact that the institution wanted to tear it down and replace it with a replica.

The privately funded, $41.5 million project calls for an expanded bowl and roof structure, enlarged seating area and new back-of-the-house facility aimed at enhancing presentation and improving comfort and safety.

Critics, including the National Trust for Historic Preservation, contend the Amphitheater – a National Historic Landmark that has hosted luminaries in the fields of politics and the arts for more than a century – could be renovated to meet most of the institution’s objectives.