Erie County residents voiced overwhelming support Wednesday for a draft plan that would create a system of linked parks, river access sites and waterfront trails along the Niagara River, from Lake Erie to Lake Ontario.
Most of the 30 speakers in Buffalo praised the plan's ecological and recreational benefits, tourism potential and overall improvement to the region's quality of life. Some urged the 13 municipalities -- any of whom can kill the greenway plan by voting it down -- not to leave it to the same fate as other promising regional projects later discarded.
"The greenway has afforded us an amazing opportunity to create a Niagara River waterfront corridor that protects and utilizes its assets, which include an internationally significant bird area, amazing fishing opportunities, rich biodiversity, multiple recreational opportunities and strong cultural heritage," said Brian Smith of Citizens Campaign for the Environment.
"We must not squander this amazing opportunity."
The public hearing in the Buffalo & Erie County Historical Society auditorium was the second of two held by the Niagara River Greenway Commission. At Tuesday's hearing in Niagara Falls, Niagara County politicians -- in stark contrast to ordinary citizens -- said that unless there are changes it will vote down the plan for prioritizing projects along the river and limiting where funds can be spent.
The Niagara Power Coalition -- which represents seven municipalities and three school districts -- believes that its agreement with the Power Authority and the Greenway Commission's intent allows for a much wider boundary in which to boost recreation, education and tourism.
Major funding for the plan would come from a 50-year, $450 million relicensing settlement that allows the Niagara Power Project in Lewiston to continue operating. The agreements with the New York Power Authority call for the Power Coalition and state parks to get $3 million each, Buffalo and Erie County $2 million and $1 million for ecological concerns. Niagara County would also receive an additional $5 million a year to spend as it likes.
Many speakers expressed support for the tightly drawn priority boundary that hugs the waterfront.
"We believe the greenway boundary should be narrow and focused as close to the shoreline as is possible," said Art Klein of the Adirondack Mountain Club.
"This is a great opportunity to enhance recreational opportunities along the Niagara River and lead to a robust tourism industry."
Megan Toohey of Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper was one of several speakers to stress environmental benefits such as reducing sewage overflows, cleaning the water and converting brownfields to greenfields.
Toohey suggested Greenway Commission legislation should be rewritten if the greenway plan is voted down because of the required consensus.
"Let's figure out a way to adopt the plan with a majority [of municipalities], and make it simple for those communities to come in when they're ready," Toohey said.
The draft plan, developed by Wendel Duchscherer, must be voted on in early 2007 and submitted to the state parks commissioner by March 21.