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New coalition wants Outer Harbor protected from overdevelopment

Buffalo’s Outer Harbor belongs to the public, not to developers.

And, handing it over to developers for future enjoyment by just a few who can afford it – as city planners endorse in some cases – is in neither Buffalo’s nor the environment’s interests, according to a newly formed vocal coalition of local community members, environmental activists and organizers.

The coalition, called “OUR Outer Harbor,” demands that the waterfront land be recognized as public trust property before any further development is allowed to proceed.

“This is a precious public place,” said Jay Burney, a writer and photographer who’s chairman of the Friends of Times Beach Nature Preserve. “We need to protect and preserve both public access and the fragile habitats that we find out here in full knowledge that our future, and the future of coming generations, is on the line.”

Burney and others from the coalition, at a Tuesday morning event at the Bell Slip launching its public campaign, said state laws designed to protect the environment and citizens are being circumvented in the interest of fast-tracking development, including at the Queen City Landing site just down the road.

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Brendan R. Mehaffy, executive director of the Office of Strategic Planning for the City of Buffalo, said a number of public meetings were held before the environmental review was finalized.

It was not fast-tracked, he said.

“For over three months, the project was reviewed at City Hall,” Mehaffy said.

After the first application was received on March 15 for Queen City Landing, the Common Council held a public hearing. Then, three more public hearings were held by the city’s planning board, on April 4, April 18 and May 16, Mehaffy said.

The planning board didn’t approve the measure until May 31 and it wasn’t given the green light by the Common Council until June 21.

“The facts are there were over three months of review with four public hearings,” Mehaffy said.

He pointed out most projects typically don’t get four public hearings. And, the review was thorough.

“Obviously, the board did not feel in its impression, and in its analysis that it rose to the level of an (environmental impact statement),” Mehaffy said.

The State Environmental Quality Review Act was enacted in the mid-1970s to prevent environmental harm, said Art Giacalone, an environmental lawyer.

“The whole idea of SEQR was to provide a tool to make sure there were objective information gathered,” Giacalone said. “It’s not happening. It wasn’t happening before (the State Environmental Quality Review Act), and it’s not happening now.”

He added: “We, unfortuately, have a city government that has gone out of its way to never effectively implement SEQRA.”

The Queen City Landing project, a proposal to build a 23-story tower with apartments on the privately owned former Freezer Queen site, is a lightning rod for environmental activists.

A lawsuit to compel environmental impact studies was filed in late June against the developer, the city’s planning board and the Common Council.

Oral arguments are slated to start Sept. 9 in the courtroom of State Supreme Court Judge Donna M. Siwek.

Giacalone said the city’s planning office, tapped as the lead agency on the project, simply “rubber-stamped” a revised proposal to develop the site stating it found “no adverse environmental impacts” by essentially performing no evaluations that could find any.

“They’re not allowing people with expertise to deal with it,” Giacalone said. “They’re pushing it through.”

Mehaffy disagreed.

“We, in all instances, follow the State Environmental Quality Review Act,” Mehaffy said. “We feel we followed the letter of the law and we’re in court presenting it.”

A remedial investigation work plan submitted to the state Department of Environmental Conservation on behalf of the developer in June shows numerous areas on the site are contaminated with elevated levels of various chemicals and heavy metals, including arsenic, mercury and lead and require cleanup. That document was submitted under the state’s Brownfield Cleanup Program.

By failing to adequately conduct environmental impact reviews, city leaders risk disrupting fragile habitat for pollinators, wildlife and native plant species in the area as well as important air and water quality, according to environmental activists.

Lynda Schneekloth, a professor in the University at Buffalo’s Department of Architecture and Planning and a chair of the Sierra Club’s Niagara Group, said holding the Outer Harbor in public trust is ultimately the most responsible use for it.

When the land “belongs to everybody,” she said, it means public access to the water and diverse forms of recreation are maximized and nature is preserved.

“Our principle is you do not sell, or privatize the waterfront,” Schneekloth said. “The land should belong to everybody, it should not be given to the privileged few.”

Coalition members want to see the Bell Slip, an important habitat for birds, pollinators and native plants about a mile south of Times Beach, kept as a nature preserve.

They encouraged the public to attend a tour of the Outer Harbor as well as the coalition’s inaugural meeting on Sept. 28.

Tours will begin at Wilkeson Pointe at 5 p.m. A public meeting will follow at 7 p.m. at Riverworks on Ganson Road.

More information may be obtained at the coalition’s website: http://www.ourouterharbor.org/.

email: tpignataro@buffnews.com

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