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Greenway panel OKs $11 million for Falls athletic fields

WHEATFIELD – The committee that holds the purse strings for Niagara River Greenway funding in Niagara County unanimously approved $11 million Tuesday for new athletic fields at Niagara Falls High School.

It also blasted a new report that criticized the way it spends the Greenway money.

The Niagara Power Coalition, comprising the communities that were directly affected by construction of the Niagara Power Project, will make a formal response next month to a report from the Partnership for the Public Good, a Buffalo-based organization that seeks to return the Greenway to its original vision of focusing on parks.

But the tenor of what that response will be was unmistakable Tuesday.

“I think they want to use this money to promote their own causes,” said Steven L. Reiter, Lewiston town supervisor. “They don’t get it. We’re going to improve our economic-development situation, and to do that, we have to be proactive, not reactive to people like this.”

The Greenway Plan, created after passage of a 2004 state law creating the program, allowed Niagara County to shift the money to any community along the Erie Canal, the Niagara Wine Trail or the Seaway Trail, as well as the river. That means every municipality in Niagara County is eligible for Greenway funding.

Last month, the Niagara River Greenway Commission voted that the Falls project was inconsistent with the goals of the Greenway, but the commission’s opinions carry no legal authority.

“The plan does depart from the law in a lot of instances,” said Sam Magavern, co-director of the Partnership for the Public Good.

“It’s a lot easier to find something consistent [with Greenway goals] under the plan than it should be.”

The source of the money is the New York Power Authority, which voted in favor of the Falls sports project both at the commission meeting March 19 and Tuesday at the session of the Host Communities Standing Committee, the panel that passes out the money.

Magavern said the law should be changed to prevent grants of Greenway money to any project the commission deems inconsistent with the original notion of creating “a linear system of parks, trails and conservation areas.”

If that were the case, the Falls school district would not have been able to get the money that it was granted Tuesday.

“The decision-making process should stay with the communities that were impacted by the Power Project,” said Cynthia A. Bianco, Niagara Falls school superintendent.

The athletic field project was approved by 86 percent of Falls voters Sept. 25 as part of a $66.7 million package of school improvements.

It will enable the district to have its own football and baseball fields after its lease on city-owned Sal Maglie Stadium runs out in June 2014.

A 13,000-square-foot field house, meant primarily for wrestling, three practice fields and six tennis courts also are part of the $22 million plan, half funded by Greenway money.

Magavern, an adjunct instructor at the University at Buffalo Law School, said that if his group had its way, “they can still propose projects and get them funded. They just have to be consistent with the Greenway law.”

Thomas M. O’Donnell, assistant corporation counsel for the City of Niagara Falls, contended that even if the law were changed, the way the money is awarded couldn’t change, because it’s based on a contract between the Power Authority and the Niagara Power Coalition.

Magavern disagreed. “I don’t think there’s any problem with impairment of contracts,” he said.

Earl Smeal, the district’s assistant manager of capital projects, said that most of the work will occur behind Niagara Falls High School, where the fields will be within two-thirds of a mile of the river.

Other work behind LaSalle Preparatory School will be less than 500 feet from the river, Smeal said. All of this is within the Greenway’s formal boundaries.

Smeal said the sports facilities will be available to private groups when the school teams aren’t using them, so the project will clearly bring people outdoors, a Greenway goal.

“Many people might want to limit that to hiking and biking uses, but I propose to you that there are many people who use the outdoors for other purposes,” Smeal said.

Mark R. Laurrie, Niagara Falls deputy school superintendent, said work is to begin this summer on the new 1,700-seat football stadium and track. The baseball field and field house also are part of the first phase.

Two existing softball diamonds and Nicoletti Field, home for junior varsity and modified football and city youth football leagues, will get new turf. They and the six new tennis courts are to open next spring, said John L. Forcucci, the school’s athletic director.

Three practice fields for soccer and lacrosse will open in the fall of 2015. Two existing softball diamonds and youth football fields behind LaSalle Prep will be get new turf, too.