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Giambra files suit to stop $30 million building at ECC North

A plan by Erie County and Erie Community College officials to locate a new $30 million academic building in Amherst is being challenged in state Supreme Court.

Former Erie County Executive Joel A. Giambra for years has threatened a lawsuit over efforts to construct the facility on the campus at Main Street and Youngs Road, instead of downtown.

Giambra followed through late Monday. ECC student Wil Turner and Buffalo Common Council Member Joseph Golombek Jr. joined him in petitioning the court to halt further planning on the building until college and county officials fully explore its potential environmental impacts.

County officials told the state Department of Environmental Conservation in July that the project will have no significant environmental effects, and supporters of the proposed facility have been pushing for construction to begin later this year or in early 2015.

The lawsuit could reignite a public debate over the future of ECC that Giambra started during his time as county executive, when he advocated for the three campuses of the college to be merged into a single downtown campus.

“We’re trying to force a thoughtful, intellectual discussion about why we need one campus and why this building should be downtown,” said Giambra.

As county executive, Giambra wasn’t able to generate enough political traction to make the plan for a consolidated campus move forward, but he has continued to push for a central campus since leaving office in 2007.

College officials have maintained that the new 55,000-square-foot facility, which is expected to house programs in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, will be the key to revitalizing an Amherst campus in need of significant upgrades and repairs.

The college Board of Trustees, a majority of the County Legislature and current County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz all have supported putting the new building in Amherst.

The county has agreed to pay $7.5 million toward the project, with another $7.5 million coming from the college and the rest coming from state funds.

Lawyer Richard G. Berger, who filed the petition, said state law required ECC and the county to conduct a full environmental impact statement before moving ahead with the project, which would be the costliest in the college’s history.

“One of the objectives of the lawsuit is to open this project up to public discussion,” said Berger. “There’s been no opportunity for the public to comment on it and to weigh in with their ideas, and that’s really necessary whenever there’s a huge investment of public dollars.”

ECC Board Chairman Stephen Boyd declined to comment on the lawsuit, but he said the college was committed to building at the Amherst campus “because we’re still committed to be a county community college and Amherst is our biggest campus.”

“It’s a campus we take pride in and have to improve,” added Boyd. “At the same time, we’re still committed to the downtown campus and still committed to making improvements at the south campus.”

The $15 million in funds dedicated to the project by the state Dormitory Authority also must be used at the Amherst campus, said Boyd.

email: jtokasz@buffnews.com