By Margaret Wooster
Special to The News
On Dec. 12, 2016, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo announced the launch of a new open space plan that targets large tracts of New York’s undeveloped Lake Erie and Lake Ontario coastline for land conservation:
“Where large tracts of undeveloped shoreline exist, efforts need to be made to preserve them in an undeveloped state. Additional public access for fishing, boating, swimming and public recreation along the Great Lakes coastline is needed in urban, suburban and rural areas … In this priority area significant coastal fish and wildlife habitats, especially those that support the regions federally listed endangered and threatened species, and lands that would provide low-impact public access and water-dependent recreation are the lands most likely to be targeted.”
To many, Buffalo’s Outer Harbor is all this and more. A large tract of mostly undeveloped shoreline, it stretches south from the Buffalo River to Lackawanna for almost 3 miles. It includes three Department of State-listed “significant coastal habitats,” and is part of the globally designated Niagara River important bird area because of its strategic location on two transcontinental migratory flyways.
Its waters provide critical food and habitat for many threatened species including the common tern, osprey, bald eagle and lake sturgeon, the largest fish in the Great Lakes. Its land – once shaped and hardened into an industrial port – has had over 30 years to recover itself in woods and meadow. The Bell Slip Preserve, located midway between Times Beach and Tifft Nature Preserve, is of interest to ecologists for its heritage native plant community, key to the past and future resiliency of this Lake Erie coastline.
Up until recently, the state agency in charge of it has regarded “the entire [Buffalo] River, Inner Harbor and Outer Harbor [as] one massive zone ripe for development,” as reported in The News last September.
Local groups, on the other hand, pressed for conservation of the Outer Harbor’s value as “public space for public uses,” complementary to and incentive for private investment in urban development north of the Buffalo River.
These groups – including Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper, Erie County Federation of Sportsmen’s Clubs, Friends of Times Beach, League of Women Voters, Preservation Buffalo Niagara, 21st Century Park on the Outer Harbor, the Partnership for Public Good, Sierra Club, the Wellness Institute of Greater Buffalo and the Western New York Environmental Alliance, among others – formed the Our Outer Harbor coalition to provide public input into local and state decision-making.
Thanks to their efforts and to a responsive local government, Buffalo’s newly adopted Unified Development Ordinance, aka “the Green Code,” zones almost all of the public land in the Outer Harbor as “natural” or “park” land. This is a victory for Buffalo and its future. Buffalo’s Lake Erie coast can be restored to public access and environmental quality – as long as individual projects proposed for the Outer Harbor support these values.
The coalition envisions the Outer Harbor as a grand natural park – a park that provides not only public access and recreation, but also improves the quality of soil and water for people, fish and wildlife. One need look no further than Central Park in Manhattan to understand the economic, cultural and ecological boon of such an investment in restraint. The entire city profits from attractive Outer Harbor parkland. Moreover, a natural coastline buffers the city and its resources from risks and damage caused by Lake Erie’s seasonal gales and squalls.
Going forward, the coalition advocates for improved communication among state and local governments, developers and our community as we collectively determine answers to the following questions:
First, will the state development agency currently in charge of the Outer Harbor become more transparent and responsible to the public? Its nine-member board includes only two locally elected members – the mayor and the county executive – and they do not have voting rights. We need to balance the board with local, environmentally knowledgeable representation.
Second, under the Green Code, the Outer Harbor is a special review district and the Buffalo Common Council has final approval authority over any proposed project. Will the state abide by local rule? Will the city abide by state law requiring full environmental impact reviews of major proposed developments? Both are needed to realize the vision of a healthy, green Outer Harbor.
Finally, is Buffalo’s regenerating Lake Erie coast – with its significant habitats, threatened species and parkland – consistent with Cuomo’s vision for New York’s Great Lakes’ shorelines? If so, its conservation will have resonance far beyond the city line.
For more on the Outer Harbor, including future public meetings, go to ourouterharbor.org.
Margaret Wooster is the author of “Living Waters: Restoring the Rivers of the Lower Great Lakes” and an adjunct professor of urban planning and ecology at the University of Buffalo.