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Developer sues for return of former site of water park

The former owner of the defunct Niagara Splash Water Park wants the 20-acre site back, arguing that the Empire State Development Corp. and the Seneca Nation of Indians violated a 2006 agreement in which the state took the land through eminent domain powers.

John P. Bartolomei said Monday that he has gone to court to get the 2006 deal overturned because the site at John Daly and Rainbow boulevards isn't owned by the Seneca Nation, as the deal envisioned.

Bartolomei said Empire State Development pledged to turn that land over to the Senecas, but instead it is owned by the Seneca Niagara Falls Gaming Corp., officially a private entity.

"This was a bait-and-switch," Bartolomei charged.

The 2006 agreement says if the deal ever is voided, Bartolomei would get the site back and would be allowed to keep the $18 million he was paid for the land and the now-demolished waterslides.

In submissions to State Supreme Court Justice Ralph A. Boniello III, Bartolomei said the agreement required the Seneca Nation to take title and construct a "grand project" on the land. That hasn't happened.

In a New London, Conn., case Bartolomei cited, the U.S. Supreme Court said a government agency could condemn property for the benefit of a private developer if the developer had a plan in hand that would benefit the community.

Bartolomei charged that the lack of action on the site clearly shows that the Senecas didn't really have a plan for the land, although they said they did, and Empire State Development knew it.

"Obviously they knew it wasn't true, or they disregarded the truth," Bartolomei said.

Attorneys for Empire State Development could not be reached Monday.

"No decisions have been made yet" on what will become of the land, said Phil Pantano, a spokesman for Seneca Gaming.

The $18 million went to Fallsite LLC, the landowner, and Fallsville Splash LLC, the owner of the fixtures. Bartolomei is the principal of both entities.

The Senecas paid $1 million directly to Bartolomei's companies, with the other $17 million paid through Empire State Development.

Bartolomei questioned the source of the $18 million, asserting that the Senecas were required by terms of the original casino compact to buy land with federal land settlement funds.

By 2006, not enough of that money was left to pay him $18 million and buy the Niagara Falls Convention Center from the state for $25 million, he argued.

The state had taken ownership of the Convention Center, which was converted into the Seneca Niagara Casino.

The 2006 agreement envisioned a trial over Bartolomei's demand for higher compensation than $18 million.

He had the property appraised for more than $56 million.

But State Supreme Court Justice Richard C. Kloch Sr. ruled in April that the site was really worth about $16.8 million, and Empire State Development now is seeking an order that Bartolomei refund about $120,000 to the agency.


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