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Bid to overhaul Falls zoning stirs debate Several departments express concerns as Council plans review

The City Council's review of a proposed overhaul of the city's zoning ordinance and comprehensive plan got off to a rocky start Monday as members of several city departments voiced concerns.

Behan Planning Associates, a Rochester consulting firm, was hired in November 2004 to help the city's Planning Department rewrite the city's zoning law and update its comprehensive plan.

The Planning Board recently forwarded a set of draft documents and recommended that the Council begin the necessary environmental and public review.

City Inspector Guy Bax told Council members during Monday's work session that while he agrees with much of the plan, there is no one at City Hall who could enforce the new regulations.

"You're approving an abyss," he said. "You have no mechanism in place."

Bax was not part of the group that drafted the proposed regulations, and said the city's Zoning Board of Appeals also should have been included because it will affect the decisions of that body.

"I've been on the Zoning Board of Appeals for 12 years. We were never asked our input," said Vince Spadorica, chairman of that board. "We feel we should have had some input."

Acting Corporation Counsel Damon A. DeCastro told the Council he disagreed with much of the plan and warned lawmakers to review the documents carefully.

"These changes will discourage certain development," he said. "It's not a legal question; it's a policy question."

Councilman Chris A. Robins asked for all the city officials who spoke during the meeting to write down their concerns so the Council can review them.

Lawrence Bice, a community planner with Behan Planning Associates, tried to paint a different picture of what the proposals could do for the city. He said a comprehensive plan should be the city's vision of what it wants to look like and the zoning code is an economic tool to reach those goals.

"Your current code is lacking a lot of elements that developers would want to know about coming into the city," he said.

Bice said the current zoning is confusing, hard to use and cumbersome.

Council members had questions about the amount of restrictions, and wanted to make sure developers wouldn't be hindered.

"If I was a developer and came to the City of Niagara Falls and my project doesn't fit, . . . would we still be able to move that project forward?" Robins asked.

In response, Bice said another way to view that question is, "What happens if a person brings a project and there's very little regulation?"

Councilmen Sam Fruscione and Lewis Rotella both said they want to allow taller buildings near the waterfront so the city can compete with Canada.

The proposed zoning would increase the 20-story height restriction downtown to 30 stories for buildings near Seneca Niagara Casino, but keep other downtown buildings to eight to 10 stories.

"Stick around tonight," Rotella told Bice. "When it gets dark and the lights go on across the river, it looks like New York City. It's phenomenal."

Council Chairman Robert Anderson Jr. said it was obvious during the meeting that there are some internal issues, especially between the Planning and Inspections departments, that need to be worked out.

City Administrator Bill Bradberry said the draft documents are a good starting point. He promised to work to bring all sides, including other local agencies, together as the Council looks to finish its review of the plan within five months.

"The purpose of this meeting was to open the door," Anderson said. "This can be very complicated, and tonight we came up with a number of items."

e-mail: gfranklin@buffnews.com

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