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Restraining order halts Amphitheater project

January 28, 2016
By A.J. Rao ( , Westfield Republican

Plans to demolish and revamp the Chautauqua Institution Amphitheater have been temporarily halted by a restraining order.

The decision, made Monday by the Hon. Frank A. Sedita III, justice of the State Supreme Court, came after attorneys on both sides of a contentious lawsuit argued for and against the prospective revamping of the historic 122-year-old structure.

The petitioners - the Committee to Preserve the Historic Chautauqua Amphitheater and five property owners at Chautauqua Institution - were represented by Buffalo attorney Arthur J. Giacalone.

The respondents - the Chautauqua Institution Board of Trustees, the code enforcement officer for the town of Chautauqua and Chautauqua Town Board - were represented by Jamestown attorney Sam Price and Westfield attorney Joel Seachrist.

According to Giacalone, the petitioners sought to nullify the demolition and building permits that the institution acquired from the town's code enforcement officer, and impose a temporary restraining order on the project's initial revamping process, set to begin in early February.

The "crux" of the lawsuit, he said, was whether or not the respondents fully complied with the Waterfront Consistency Law and the State Environmental Quality Review Act.

"The Chautauqua Institution has acted from day one as if there weren't any government restraints on what they wanted to do," Giacalone said. "(The Institution felt) they didn't have to worry about federal laws or state laws ... and the only thing they had to do was get a building permit. So there wasn't any environmental review under the State Environmental Quality Review Act or consistency review under the local Waterfront Revitalization Plan."

The Waterfront Consistency Law is meant to protect and enhance waterfront areas in the town, as well as maintain a balance between usage of waterfront areas and the wild, natural habitat therein. In the assessment form which accompanies the law, the questionnaire includes items regarding historic structures or sites.

"If (the respondents) voluntarily said that they will go back and comply with these laws, then the lawsuit is over for now as they go and do it, but we want a thoughtful review," Giacalone said. "We want a review that actually asks itself if you have this historic gem and you want to demolish and replace it with something that kind of looks like it, then are you consistent with the plan that says preserve and retain important historical resources?"

Price countered by insisting the respondents were code-compliant and that the town "appropriately exercised its function under the statute."

He also warned that any delay in the Amp renewal project could be costly to the town of Chautauqua.

"Some contractors are starting to stage equipment ... (and prepare) asbestos abatement," Price said. "If we have to stop progress, then that could have a potential cost to Chautauqua ... and I don't think we should pay any additional costs associated with a delay."

Sedita, acknowledging that he needed more information before making a determination, said he would grant the petitioners' request for a temporary restraining order on the Amp project until Feb. 1 - at which time, the attorneys will return to court with more specifics on the State Environmental Quality Review Act and Waterfront Revitalization Plan and what constitutes "compliance" with these laws.

George Murphy, vice president of the Chautauqua Institution, said the temporary delay should have no impact on the project's schedule.

"We hadn't planned on doing any work until after Feb. 1," he said, describing the day as more of a "kick-off" session. "So assuming things go well next Monday, this will have no impact."

Murphy indicated, however, that further delays could be more problematic.

"I'd say a (delay) of a week or two could be made up with weekends and overtime between now and when the season starts," he said. "But if we get beyond that then we probably can't do as much work as we'd like to do in the pre-season. If you're talking multiple weeks and multiple months, then we would have to cut the scope of the work."

Murphy said he wasn't surprised by the lawsuit and the actions of the Committee to Preserve the Historic Chautauqua Amphitheater, insisting they threatened to file a lawsuit as soon as the project was approved.

"We're also not surprised about how specific the lawsuit is," Murphy said. "It's really a procedural thing saying we shouldn't have gotten these permits because we didn't follow the necessary approval processes required by the town. It's a very narrow thing. We think that by getting the permits, we provided the city with everything we needed to do and the city acted within their authority. So we're fairly comfortable going in front of the judge next Monday."

The institution's board of trustees voted in August to demolish and rebuild the amphitheater due to safety, accessibility, seating and performance space needs. In December, the board approved the facility's final design and authorized a construction contract.

The $41.5 million project, funded entirely through private and foundation donations, includes an expanded bowl and roof structure, enlarged seating area and a new, 21,000-square-foot, back-of-house facility.



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