Share this article

print logo

Another Voice: Chautauqua Amphitheater was the victim of a zoning exemption

By Brian Berg, Alicia Berg and Steve Davies

Throughout our nearly two-year campaign to save the Chautauqua Institution Amphitheater from demolition and replacement, we were frequently asked: How could destruction of such a historic place be allowed to happen? Are there no legal protections?

The short answer is: the institution is above the law, at least in terms of land use and environmental regulation. As a result, the Amp’s backstage and over 40 trees are now gone forever. The auditorium follows in the fall.

While the Amp is the centerpiece of a National Historic Landmark District, this federal designation provides protection only if public funds are used. Judge Frank A. Sedita III’s recent decision denying our request for a preliminary injunction to stop the Amp’s demolition based on state and local laws revealed the true problem.

Ordinarily, zoning laws give the local community due process before significant changes can be made to existing structures. But the Town of Chautauqua zoning ordinance was not available to protect the Amp.

According to court papers, the town exempted the Chautauqua Institution from its zoning regulations in 1994 because the institution had enacted its own, far more rigorous planning and design guidelines.

Unfortunately, there’s a catch. The institution exempts itself – and its 100-plus mostly historic buildings and open space – from its own land use regulations. These regulations, ironically, are “geared to preserving existing structures through restoration or renovation and discourage demolition.”

According to Sedita, the absence of a “discretionary” zoning decision by the town also meant that it did not have to review whether the Amp’s demolition was consistent with its waterfront revitalization program adopted in 2008. That plan expressly includes town policy to “preserve historic resources of the waterfront area of Chautauqua Lake.”

The court also concluded for the same reason that the proposal to demolish the Amp did not trigger the requirements of the State Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQRA). SEQRA obligates local government agencies to avoid, if possible, approving a project that would have a significant adverse impact on important historic resources.

Sedita’s decision should serve as a wake-up call. If this legal framework is not changed, Chautauqua Institution will continue to make decisions about its land use and historic buildings unencumbered by regulation (except for the building code). And Chautauquans and the public will continue to have no official governmental forum to influence these decisions.

We mourn the Amp’s imminent demise. But we should also learn from it.

Brian Berg, Alicia Berg and Steve Davies founded the Committee to Preserve the Historic Chautauqua Amphitheater.