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Judge explains timing of ruling allowing Busti demolitions

The sight of excavators tearing down vacant houses near the Peace Bridge on a chilly Saturday morning in February recalled so many demolitions in Buffalo that had been given a green light late on a Friday afternoon.

But a federal judge Wednesday said there was nothing “underhanded” about the timing of his decision issued at 3:55 p.m. on the Friday before the Saturday demolition, and he dismissed the lawsuit that had sought to prevent the demolition.

But before the suit was dismissed, a lawyer for preservationists and neighbors had the opportunity Wednesday to ask the judge why his February decision was issued late on a Friday afternoon.

“Because of the timing, there was really no opportunity for the plaintiffs to file a notice of appeal,” said attorney Richard G. Berger, who represents the Campaign for Greater Buffalo History, Architecture and Culture.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Jeremiah J. McCarthy said releasing the decision late on a Friday afternoon was not intentional and that it was a complex case.

“I did spend a lot of time on trying to get it right,” he said. “There wasn’t anything underhanded about the timing.”

The judge acknowledged he couldn’t speak for an appeals court but said that if it was any consolation, he wouldn’t have ruled favorably on an attempt by the plaintiffs to halt the decision from taking effect.

“I didn’t consider it in my mind to be a close call,” McCarthy said.

McCarthy’s 23-page decision to deny a preliminary injunction that would have prevented the demolition of the houses on Busti Avenue was issued Feb. 22, two months after lawyers for the campaign and the Buffalo and Fort Erie Public Bridge Authority argued the case in court for two hours.

“To me it was a very fascinating issue, there was a lot to wrestle with,” McCarthy said, acknowledging that the issues raised in the lawsuit were ones he hadn’t had to confront in prior cases.

“In this case, I hope in every case, I gave it my best shot,” he said.

The decision ruled in the campaign’s favor in some matters but ultimately cleared the way for the demolitions to begin.

The lawsuit, filed in June, had stopped demolition work already under way, said Bridge Authority lawyer Adam S. Walters.

The contractor wasn’t going to get paid until the work was completed and was therefore motivated to finish the work as quickly as possible after the decision was rendered, Walters told the court.

The houses, on eight contiguous parcels between Vermont and Rhode Island streets, were owned by the Bridge Authority, which is planning a landscaped area in their place.

Neighbors appeared divided on whether the houses should stand, with some calling them eyesores and others saying they provided a physical buffer between the bridge and their neighborhood.

McCarthy’s ruling indicated that the properties were dilapidated and unsafe, though preservationists had argued that several houses had historical value and were worthy of being preserved.

Lawyers agreed Wednesday that since the houses had been demolished, nothing was left to be decided, and McCarthy dismissed the case.