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Judge extends restraining order against Chautauqua Institution Ampitheater work

February 4, 2016
By A.J. Rao ( , Westfield Republican

A court-imposed restraining order placed last week on the Chautauqua Institution Amphitheater reconstruction project has been extended for another week.

The Hon. Frank A. Sedita III, justice of the State Supreme Court, said Monday in session that he didn't want "one plant uprooted" until he received expert testimony on the nature of the project itself.

Specifically, he asked, is the Amp project more "restorative" in nature, designed to modernize the Amp without destroying its character and purpose in its present location - in other words, a "minor action" as defined by the town of Chautauqua ordinance?

Or is the project destructive in nature and intent on replacing the Amp with a structure of a different kind and/or in a different location?

The petitioners of the lawsuit - the Committee to Preserve the Historic Chautauqua Amphitheater and five property owners at Chautauqua Institution - believe the project is not only destructive, but subject to two laws designed to protect both the environment and historic resources around Chautauqua Lake: the Local Waterfront Revitalization Program and the State Environmental Review Act.

The respondents - the Chautauqua Institution Board of Trustees, the code enforcement officer for the town of Chautauqua and Chautauqua Town Board - believe the project is more "restorative," and exempts the code enforcement officer from conducting any environmental review.

Sedita, acknowledging his "lack of expertise" in architecture and engineering, said attorneys from both parties need to bring in professional testimony to the next court hearing - experts who can better explain the nature of the Amp project and whether it constitutes a "minor action" or not.

Attorneys from both parties will meet privately with Sedita on Wednesday to discuss who they will bring to testify. The next court hearing is slated for next week. A specific date has yet to be determined.

The temporary restraining order on the Amp project, while extended for another week, should not affect any "staging" or preliminary work, Sedita said.

This notwithstanding, George Murphy, chief marketing officer at Chautauqua Institution, said he was disappointed that the Institution could not begin its work on schedule, indicating that a two-week delay could cost upwards of $76,000 and a four-week delay up to $460,000.

"We understand the judge needs time," Murphy said. "This is a fairly complex case. It's a technicality on a technicality ... so I think there needs to be more education on it. (Next week), it's going to be a very technical discussion with architects and engineers."

Buffalo attorney Arthur Giacalone, who is representing the petitioners, showed little sympathy toward the Institution's potential financial woes.

"They can obviously get as much money as they want," he said. "They got $44 million contributed to them in a very short period of time ... so they have the ability to continue getting money. I have no doubt about that."

Giacalone continued to emphasize that the Amp project is not in keeping with the local Waterfront Revitalization Plan, which aims to protect historical resources.

"There's no doubt that the town and every historic preservation entity recognizes that that Amp is the most important structure on the Chautauqua Institution grounds," Giacalone said. "Demolishing this Amp and putting up what I think is closer to a 'Legos' replica of a real building is not consistent with preserving historic resources."

Brian Berg, chairman of the Committee to Preserve the Historic Chautauqua Amphitheater, called the extension of the restraining order an "important next step in preserving Chautauqua's sacred space and one of America's most historic landmarks."

"We are pleased Judge Sedita III and the court are proceeding carefully and we're looking forward to continuing the process next week," Berg said.

The Chautauqua Institution Amphitheater was placed on the 2015 list of America's Most Endangered Historic Places by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

The National Trust also named the Amp a National Treasure.

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.

In a statement last November, Institution President Tom Becker attempted to dispel some of the misinformation regarding the project, describing the renewed Amp as a "state-of-the-art facility that harmonizes seamlessly with its setting and retains vital connectivity to the other significant community gathering places at the heart of the Chautauqua Institution grounds. The design honors the look and feel of the original structure, a requirement Chautauquans have emphasized to us from the earliest stages of the project. The design had to have a familiar feel. In that regard, I believe we have succeeded enormously."

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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