Niagara County's politicians spoke out strongly Tuesday for the right to spend Niagara River Greenway money as they see fit, whether their projects are near the Niagara River or not.
But no one from the public voiced any support for that attitude during a nearly three-hour hearing.
After the elected officials left the Conference Center Niagara Falls, scene of the first of two scheduled hearings on the Niagara River Greenway Commission's plan, speaker after speaker called for limiting the use of the funds to projects immediately adjacent to the river.
That's what the commission envisions in its report, which sets a "priority boundary" along the river.
But as things now stand, the position of the local politicians is a strong one. The state law that created the Greenway Commission says that any of the 13 cities, towns and villages within the Greenway strip can veto the plan. The strip runs along the entire length of the river from Youngstown to Buffalo.
Former Niagara Falls Councilman Paul Dyster, a Greenway Commission member, said that all 13 must approve the plan before it can be submitted to Albany for implementation. The law sets a March 21 deadline for the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation to receive the report.
Assemblyman Sam Hoyt, D-Buffalo, sent a letter to be read at the hearing threatening to change the law.
"The intent of the [original] legislation was to create a Greenway corridor that hugs the waterfront," he wrote. "This long-term opportunity must not be squandered for the short-term satisfaction of inland projects."
At stake is the use of $8 million a year the New York Power Authority is paying to the members of the Niagara Power Coalition as part of the host communities' agreement on terms of a new license for the Niagara Power Project in Lewiston.
The coalition includes Niagara County, the City of Niagara Falls, the towns of Lewiston and Niagara, and the Niagara Falls, Niagara-Wheatfield and Lewiston-Porter school districts.
Mark Mistretta of Wendel Duchscherer, the consulting firm that drew up the plan, said municipal approvals are supposed to occur between the close of the public comment period on the plan Jan. 17 and the end of February.
Mistretta said projects outside the priority zone are not barred, but they must be held to "a higher standard" for compliance with the overall goals of the Greenway.
Niagara County Legislature Chairman William L. Ross, chairman of the Niagara Power Coalition, said the draft Greenway plan overlooks some aspects of the original state law that created the Greenway Commission.
Ross said the legislation called for a plan that would "recommend how the Greenway could be linked to upland and interior communities in order to promote linkages to the river."
"While the resources within the established priority boundary are certainly important, the plan misses an opportunity to create a truly regional greenway that fully espouses the intentions of the enabling legislation," Ross said.
Samuel M. Ferraro, Niagara County's economic development commissioner, called on the commission to issue a final plan endorsing the Power Coalition's preferred projects. He said the coalition members are "not in a position to accept, not support, the draft Greenway plan as written."
"That was the mistake of this legislation," said John Jordan, a North Tonawanda resident. "Local politicians should not have veto power over this."
"If there are too many projects, there will be too few that are done correctly," warned Richard Roach of Youngstown.
"We need to maintain quality over quantity," said Richard Speth of Buffalo. "If we do it right, we'll have a major impact on growth in this area."
Town of Niagara Supervisor Steven C. Richards and Porter Councilwoman Nancy Orsi both argued that the Power Authority payments are partial compensation for millions of dollars in lost tax revenues from land taken off the tax rolls in the host communities because of the Niagara Power Project.
"They should be allowed to use the money as they see fit," Orsi said.
Wilson Supervisor Joseph A. Jastrzemski, whose town is outside the Greenway area, said the plan should be rejected because it doesn't extend the Greenway farther inland.
"Why we are not expanding to all of the Seaway Trail through Wilson, Newfane, Olcott and all the way into Somerset is beyond me," he said.
John Jacoby of Lewiston condemned plans to expand a walking trail.
"What they want to do is chop down trees to widen the path, and where it's too close to the river, to build retaining walls and other structures. They might as well put up cyclone fences for all the aesthetic appeal," Jacoby said.
Harvey N. Albond, a planning consultant for Wheatfield, said the Town Board has passed a resolution opposing any use of eminent domain powers to take land for the Greenway.
A second hearing is set for 7 p.m. today in the Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society, 25 Nottingham Court.