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Approval of downtown projects is focus of Falls-IDA quarrel

The City of Niagara Falls needs to work faster to approve business projects in its downtown area, Niagara County Industrial Development Agency Chairman Henry M. Sloma told the County Legislature on Tuesday.

Sloma said he intends to go before the City Council, either today or at its first meeting in March, to press for an accelerated approval process in the downtown area.

He suggested a central business overlay district where a generic environmental impact statement could be used, resulting in preapproved sites without need for further review.

Sloma also called for a master application that would cover planning, zoning and building permits, and an agreement between the city and the county to exempt downtown projects from having to go through the county Planning Board.

City Senior Planner Thomas DeSantis said by telephone that he approved of skipping the county Planning Board.

But as for the rest of Sloma's ideas, DeSantis said, "We typically approve projects in 60 days or less, so he doesn't know what he's talking about."

Mayor Paul A. Dyster said, "I don't believe our Planning Board is an impediment to development in any way. I think we can make a good case for exactly the opposite."

Earlier this month, city Planning Board Chairman Richard Smith attended an IDA public hearing to pose several procedural objections to a proposal to reopen a shuttered gas station on Niagara Street in the Falls. The IDA granted the applicant a tax break.

"It just struck us -- this is fundamentally wrong," Sloma said. "They should be working to take barriers down."

Dyster said he and his economic development staff met for 90 minutes Tuesday with IDA marketing director Andrea L. Klyczek, and the topic of streamlining the city's processes never came up.

"There was no communication, in spite of the fact we met for an hour and a half with a representative of his organization," the mayor said. "People say there are bad relations between the city and the IDA, and this is a good example of why."

Also Tuesday, the Legislature approved six-month contracts with two lobbying firms for $30,000 each.

Capital Public Strategies will work primarily for economic development funding, while Masiello, Martucci, Calabrese & Associates will concentrate on homeland security aid.

The Urban Area Security Initiative may be abolished next year, said former Deputy Erie County Executive Carl J. Calabrese, a partner in the latter firm.

Under the current system, the Obama administration did away with all homeland security funding for Buffalo and Niagara and Erie counties last year.

"A whole new system of competitive grants could benefit our communities, our region," Calabrese said. He said his job will be to get the county on the right side of the new rules.

Legislature Minority Leader Dennis F. Virtuoso and Legislator Jason A. Zona, D-Niagara Falls, voted against the contracts.

Virtuoso said he thinks it's up to State Sen. George D. Maziarz, R-Newfane, to bring home the bacon.

"We've got a senator who is supposed to be the third most powerful man in this state," Virtuoso said. "Now we have to hire lobbyists to get our money from the state."

Zona said he thinks the new county emergency management director, Jonathan F. Schultz, should do such work. County Manager Jeffrey M. Glatz said Schultz will be too busy with other tasks.

One of those tasks is the new $10 million countywide emergency radio system, the federally mandated "narrowbanding" project. Tuesday, lawmakers accepted a $2 million state grant toward that project.

email: tprohaska@buffnews.com