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NIAGARA FALLS – At its March 19 meeting, the Niagara River Greenway Commission voted, 7-2, against an $11 million request for new and improved athletic fields at Niagara Falls public schools, but that vote probably won’t matter.

The commission is powerless when it comes to deciding how the $9 million a year in Greenway funds is spent, and Niagara County’s Host Communities Standing Committee is likely to approve the funding at its April 16 meeting.

“It seems like a great project,” said William L. Ross, chairman of the Niagara County Legislature and the county’s representative on the standing committee.

The Niagara Falls School District is one of the members of the committee, and Deputy Superintendent Mark Laurrie said the $22.1 million athletic project, half funded by the Greenway, has been the district’s goal ever since Niagara Power Project relicensing began to be discussed in the late 1990s.

Former Superintendent Carmen A. Granto made the project the district’s primary goal in negotiations over how to spend the money the New York Power Authority would eventually agree to contribute to the localities.

Last Sept. 25, Falls voters overwhelmingly supported a proposal to borrow up to $66.7 million for a variety of purposes. That package included the district’s $11.1 million share of the athletic project.

“We’re going to make it happen,” Laurrie said. “We think it’s going to be a world-class recreational facility. I believe it does meet the tenets of the Greenway plan.”

The centerpiece is a plan to build a new football field and two baseball diamonds behind Niagara Falls High School, all with artificial turf. The football and baseball teams would move out of city-owned Sal Maglie Stadium after the 2013-14 school year, which is when the district’s lease on the stadium expires anyway.

Laurrie said maintenance on the stadium costs the school district about $150,000 a year.

Mayor Paul A. Dyster, a Greenway Commission member, abstained from the March 19 vote on the athletic project.

“If the school district went forward, we would have to find someone else to operate the stadium,” Dyster said. “I’m in favor of the project, but if I had voted on the commission, I would have been voting on consistency with the Greenway plan. That would be the appearance of a conflict of interest. People would expect the mayor of the City of Niagara Falls to defend the [stadium] lease.”

The commission’s vote against the project came at the same meeting in which the commission received a report from University at Buffalo law professor Sam Magavern and a team of 17 law students that concluded that the notion of a system of linear parks and trails along the Niagara River is being buried by the commission’s powerlessness.

In Niagara County, Greenway funding is allowed not only along the river, but also in proximity to the Seaway and Niagara Wine trails and the Erie Canal. That makes almost the entire county eligible for Greenway money.

The Magavern report said the state law governing the Greenway should be changed to keep money along the river.

Laurrie said all the athletic projects in Niagara Falls are within a mile of the river, with work at LaSalle Prep School located only 450 feet away. Fields there and the current high school fields also are to be upgraded and expanded.

email: tprohaska@buffnews.com