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Suit dismissed, restraining order on ‘Amp’ work lifted

February 18, 2016
By A.J. Rao ( , Westfield Republican

MAYVILLE - Legal efforts to stall the Chautauqua Institution Amphitheater renewal project were soundly dismissed Thursday in State Supreme Court.

The Hon. Frank A. Sedita III, who presided over the case, said he will lift the temporary restraining order that has halted the project for more than two weeks, and deny the motion for a preliminary injunction, which would have extended the restraining order for the duration of the lawsuit.

Sedita said the decision hinged on whether the Amp project constituted an "action" or "minor action" as defined by local ordinance, and whether the town of Chautauqua and its code enforcement officer complied fully with local zoning and environmental regulations.

According to the lawsuit's petitioners - the Committee to Preserve the Historic Chautauqua Amphitheater and five property owners on the institution grounds - the Amp project constituted an "action" because it greatly altered the size, footprint and function of the original Amp.

As a result, they argued, the town of Chautauqua and its code enforcement officer were mandated to - and failed to - comply with the local Waterfront Consistency Law and State Environmental Quality Review Act, both of which required a consistency and environmental review of the project, respectively, before permits were issued.

The respondents - the Chautauqua Institution Board of Trustees, the code enforcement officer for the town of Chautauqua and Chautauqua Town Board - argued that the Amp project constituted a "minor action" because it fell within the ordinance's definition of a "replacement, rehabilitation, or reconstruction" of a similar structure in the same location.

As a result, they argued, the project is exempted from any consistency and environmental reviews.

Sedita, before rendering his decision, described the cost of the project and the controversy surrounding it as "irrelevant under the law." He ruled in favor of the respondents, indicating that the project did indeed constitute a "minor action."

"This is not a mindless demolition of a treasured historical building for the purpose of replacing it with a 'Lego-like' replica," Sedita said. "In my opinion, the Amp project constitutes a 'minor action,' and as such, is exempt from the (Waterfront Consistency Law and SEQRA)."

Sedita said he will compose a more detailed, written decision this weekend.

"It was a very thorough discussion ... (and) we're excited to be able to move forward," George Murphy, vice president of Chautauqua Institution, said. "We're on a very tight schedule between now and June, and this allows us to not lose (anymore) time so we can make sure we can complete the project next year."

The respondents were represented by Buffalo attorney Richard Moore, Jamestown attorney Sam Price and Westfield attorney Joel Seachrist.

Buffalo attorney Arthur Giacalone, who represented the petitioners, said he wasn't expecting a decision that essentially ended the lawsuit, but rather one that dealt solely with the preliminary injunction.

"I was assuming that the worst-case scenario would be a lifting of the temporary restraining order and we would be back in court as early as next week to address the merits," he said. "I guess I wasn't quite correct on that prediction."

Giacalone said he will consult with his clients as to whether to appeal the decision or to make a motion for reargument. The latter involves a motion to request a lower court judge to reconsider their decision on the issue.

Brian Berg, chairman of the Committee to Preserve the Historic Chautauqua Amphitheater, said the court's decision was a "travesty," and would proceed to destroy Chautauqua's "most sacred structure and one of the nation's most historic places."

"Had leadership of the Institution been truly interested in a solution that united the community, it would have explored preservation options openly and sincerely with experts and stakeholders," Berg said. "Instead, a deeply divided community will get a $41.5 million structure devoid of the original Amp's authenticity and history. We fundamentally believe Chautauqua deserves better."

Preliminary staging and preparations for the Amp project were supposed to begin on Feb. 1. Murphy said that the institution has absorbed costs of approximately $75,000 because of the delay.

The preliminary phase is scheduled to be completed in June and not expected to affect the summer season at the institution. Major construction will continue after the summer season.



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