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Planned parking fee roils discussion for Buffalo Harbor State Park marina’s future

When Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo announced amid great fanfare his plans to transform much of Buffalo’s vast Outer Harbor into a state park back in 2013, one of his top local lieutenants allayed any concerns over continued public access.

“There is no parking fee anticipated, or any park admission fee,” Sam Hoyt, regional president of the Empire State Development Corp., told The Buffalo News at the time. Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, added he received the same assurance.

But now those concerns are reviving.

After the businessman contracting with the state to run the Buffalo Harbor State Park marina over the weekend revealed plans to charge $5 for parking in some lots at the increasingly popular waterfront attraction, local officials like Higgins and Assemblyman Michael P. Kearns are pushing back.

And while state officials will still not discuss the situation in any manner other than prepared statements, knowledgeable sources now describe the parking proposal as “fluid” and said that it may soon be re-examined.

Higgins, a longtime champion of access to the Buffalo waterfront, on Wednesday called parking fees “inconsistent” with Albany’s promise of waterfront access when the land was transferred from the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority to the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation. Though he fears complications posed by the state’s contractual obligations with the marina’s new private operator, he wants Albany to reconsider any agreement that allows a parking fee.

“It’s just wrong that the people of Buffalo and Western New York be charged for access to a waterfront to which they were denied access for decades,” Higgins said. “On principle, the issue of charging a parking fee is inconsistent with all their original statements.”

Kearns is also taken aback by the new parking fee plans, and has directed his complaints directly to parks Commissioner Rose Harvey.

“I don’t want anyone to pay $5 to get into a public park,” he said. “It’s inconsistent with the whole idea of a public park.”

Darby Campbell of Tennessee-based Safe Harbor Development Co. contends the new fee is necessary at what is traditionally called the Small Boat Harbor – the largest marina in New York State. Campbell told The News last week that while he does not relish the new parking charge, it is needed because of the $10 million in harbor improvements he plans over the next several years.

He also points to free parking available in other lots of the new state park. Campbell contends the Small Boat Harbor complex is no longer a park but a marina, and that charging occasional visitors helps him guarantee parking spaces for his 1,037 slip holders.

For the second week in a row, parks spokesman Randy Simons would not return a telephone call seeking to discuss the situation and instead issued a prepared statement – this time hinting at revisiting the situation.

“Our commitment is to developing and enhancing operations at the harbor,” he said. “Safe Harbor has presented ideas on how to enhance the water experience at the marina. We are discussing these options with Safe Harbor. Nothing is finalized.”

State officials also point out that an access fee is charged to every vehicle now entering the vast majority of state parks throughout New York.

Still, Kearns told Harvey that Campbell already has been granted enough advantages from the state through property, sales and mortgage recording tax exemptions to cover his expenses.

“I am asking that you exercise your discretion and not approve any plans which drastically limit a significant portion of Buffalo’s citizens from accessing this park,” he told the commissioner in a letter, “after they have paid for this access in the form of tax breaks.”

Kearns also contends that the state’s 2014 request for proposals seeking a marina manager lists maintaining “public aspects of the marina” as a project goal.

“A $5 fee will have a major impact on people going down there and definitely impede access,” he told The News. “This is not the Buffalo thing to do.”

The assemblyman asked the parks system to provide any Safe Harbor parking proposals as well as their revenue projections. Safe Harbor controls 532 parking slots out of about 800 throughout the Small Boat Harbor complex.

Campbell said last week that $5 will be charged for non-slip holders although it is not yet known whether the company will be charging for all 532 spots at all times. The new owner said he wants to maintain public access, but servicing 1,200 eventual slip holders remains his priority. That means providing nearby parking.

Slip holders who tie up their boats at the Small Boat Harbor, meanwhile, are hailing the new parking fees as an improvement for their annual rental fees. Chris Silverstein of Buffalo, who pays $1,450 annually at the marina, said the new parking arrangement eliminates the constant problem of “driving around for half an hour trying to find a parking place.”

“If you want a better spot, you should pay for it,” he said, “and there will still be ample free parking for everybody.”

But Tucker Curtin, owner of Dug’s Dive, said last week he remains unsure how many park visitors can avoid the $5 fee beyond the 30 spaces reserved for the restaurant. He also has questioned whether the new parking fees advances the long-held goal of providing access to the Outer Harbor, even with some free parking available.

In fact, the marina’s former owner – the NFTA – began marketing the area as a waterfront destination for all as far back as 2009 with a slogan of “You don’t need a boat to enjoy Buffalo’s biggest marina.”