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Verizon approval was rushed, lawyer says; Suit seeks to stop data center project

One of the largest proposed developments in Niagara County history took center stage Wednesday as part of a court case accusing local politicians of rushing to approve a $1.2 billion computer data center.

Claims that the proposed 159-acre Verizon facility in the Town of Somerset was not properly reviewed are at the heart of a lawsuit seeking to stop the project.

A lawyer for Mary Ann Rizzo, an Amherst woman who owns land near the site of the proposed project, argued in court that the large-scale development has not undergone a thorough environmental and zoning review.

"A sophisticated developer and a compliant group of officials circumvented the law," said Arthur J. Giacalone, Rizzo's lawyer.

Verizon's lawyers spent much of the day arguing that a significant review was done and that no one, including Rizzo, will be hurt by the project.

They also made the case that, while the development is huge, the environmental impact is minimal.

"It's really just a warehouse for computers," said Adam S. Walters, one of Verizon's lawyers.

Rizzo's suit, in a nutshell, contends the development was rubber-stamped by officials. It takes particular aim at the Somerset Town Board and its decision not to require a full-blown environmental study.

The project, which is receiving a wide range of public subsidies, would be located on vacant land that is now a soybean farm. A coal-fired power plant operates nearby.

"Certainly, this is an industrial area," Walters told Niagara County Judge Matthew J. Murphy III, who is acting as a State Supreme Court justice in this case.

Giacalone countered by suggesting the local review process was biased toward Verizon.

He disclosed that the company drafted the resolution eventually approved by the Town Board, and that its environmental impact analysis was submitted just one day before the town approved the project.

The lawsuit does not challenge the rationale behind the project's deep subsidies -- they include an estimated $518 million in sales and property tax breaks over a 20-year period -- but does seek to block them as part of its legal remedy.

The data center, if built, would result in a potential $4 billion investment by Verizon and create an estimated 200 jobs in five years.

Arguments in the case ended Wednesday afternoon. Murphy said he will issue a written ruling but did not give a time frame.


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