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Sedita weighing ruling to block Chautauqua Amphitheater demolition

State Supreme Court Justice Frank A. Sedita III will decide Thursday on whether to institute a preliminary injunction that would bar demolition of the historic Chautauqua Amphitheater.

Sedita heard testimony Monday from both sides of the issue. Buffalo architect Peter Flynn, who served on the Chautauqua Institution’s Historic Preservation Advisory Panel that was critical of demolition, spoke in favor of preserving the 123-year-old outdoor space, while Chautauqua trustee Robert Jeffrey, program director Deborah Sunyma Moore and operations director John Shedd, argued in favor of replacing it with a replica.

The proceeding was the result of a lawsuit filed against the Chautauqua Institution by the Committee to Preserve the Historic Chautauqua Amphitheater and five property owners at Chautauqua Institution. They contend the institution has failed to comply with two local ordinances, the Waterfront Consistency Law and the State Environmental Review Act, which require preserving historical resources and protecting the environment.

The institution, the town of Chautauqua’s code enforcement officer and the Chautauqua Town Board contend the Amphitheater project is exempt from these ordinances. They say the project is “restorative” in nature and does not destroy the character of the structure, and therefore should be exempt from historical preservation or environmental review.

Shedd told Sedita that 40 trees would need to be cut down for the Amphitheater project, and a red bridge behind the structure would need to be taken down to allow demolition and construction to proceed. The replica amphitheater would be almost 50 percent larger than the current one.

Sedita’s decision Thursday could continue the temporary restraining order, be subsituted by a preliminary injunction, or allow the institution to resume its work.

George Murphy, Chautauqua Institution’s chief marketing officer, has said a four-week delay could cost the Institution up to $460,000.

The privately-funded, $41.5 million project calls for an expanded bowl and roof structure, enlarged seating area and new back-of-house facility that will enhance presentation, and improve comfort and safety.

Critics contend the Amphitheater, which has hosted luminaries in the fields of politics and arts for over a century, and as a National Historic Landmark, and can be renovated while meeting most of the institution’s objectives.