How far inland should be considered “waterfront”?
The question vexed some lawmakers seven years as ago as they tried to determine the eastern edge of a proposed waterfront revitalization area called the Niagara River Greenway.
The issue reared its head again after a report found that spending on the Greenway strayed from what was intended in the 2004 state law – the creation of an interconnected system of parks, trails and water access points along the Niagara River from Buffalo to Youngstown.
At its core, the fight is over how $450 million should be spent over 50 years.
Priority was given to those communities closest to the Niagara River, but projects as far east as the Orleans County border remain eligible.
State Sen. Mark J. Grisanti, R-Buffalo, and Assemblyman Sean Ryan, D-Buffalo, have introduced legislation that would narrow the geographic area eligible for Greenway funding.
Last week, none of the state lawmakers who represent Niagara County said they support the Grisanti-Ryan proposal.
Sam Magavern, co-director of the Partnership for the Public Good and author of the report about Greenway funding, argued that what’s proposed doesn’t actually take away local control.
“It would still be the Niagara County municipalities deciding how the Niagara County funds should be spent,” Magavern said in an email. “And while it would no longer be possible to fund non-Green-way projects such as school athletic facilities and theater marquee restorations, there is no shortage of worthy projects that would meet the purpose of the Greenway law and relicensing agreements.”
The Greenway projects are funded under agreements tied to the relicensing of the New York Power Authority’s Niagara Power Project. A total of $9 million has been set aside each year through 2057 for Greenway efforts.
The projects that have received Greenway funding include a sidewalk and streetscape improvement project in Sanborn, a theater in Lockport and a jazz concert in Lewiston.
What the Grisanti-Ryan proposal essentially does is redefine the physical boundaries of the Greenway.
The new boundary would shift to what’s described in the current plan as the “Greenway Focus Area,” which is areas closest to the river and immediately adjoining assets.
Both Grisanti and Ryan said they believe reform is needed.
Grisanti, in a written statement, said the Greenway “has sometimes gone awry from its original intent.”
Ryan said that the focus of the Greenway has “drifted away” and that the legislation would refocus the process.
“When people see projects miles from the shoreline being funded, they are perplexed and wonder why the focus is not on improving the shoreline of the Niagara River,” Ryan said in a statement.
What’s shaping up is a collision of two different views on how to prioritize Greenway spending.
Officials in the communities that have had land used for the Niagara Power Project have long stressed that they don’t want any other entity telling them how to spend their money.
When asked about the agreements between these host communities and the Power Authority, Doug Curella, Grisanti’s chief of staff, said the proposed legislation is not meant to affect “already existing projects.”
“We really need to look at each individual agreement to make sure we are being fair and appropriate to the host community,” Curella said in an email.
State lawmakers representing Niagara County don’t support the Grisanti-Ryan proposal and have made it clear they support the status quo.
Assemblyman John D. Ceretto, R-Lewiston, said the representatives of the Niagara County governments and school districts should be able to spend the money as they see fit, because “they’re responsible to the people who put them in office.”
“I do believe in the host communities and local control,” Ceretto said.
State Sen. George D. Maziarz, R-Newfane, is also concerned about the host communities losing what control they have over the Greenway dollars, his office said.
In a written statement, Assemblywoman Jane Corwin, R-Clarence, said she was concerned “that the new parameters that would be set for the Greenway are potentially overly stringent and may bar worthy projects from receiving assistance.”
Both Ceretto and Maziarz said they instead support a proposal that would require an audit of all benefits local communities have received through relicensing agreements.
Maziarz has sponsored that bill in the Senate, as Ryan has done in the Assembly. Ceretto said he is co-sponsoring Ryan’s bill.
What’s missing from their public statements is how well they believe the Greenway development so far accomplishes the goals of the state law in creating a “world-class corridor.”
Town of Lewiston officials, who are members of the Host Communities Standing Committee and Power Coalition, spoke out against the Grisanti- Ryan proposal last week.
Niagara County Legislature Chairman William L. Ross, C-Wheatfield, represented the county in relicensing talks and is the longtime chairman of the Niagara Power Coalition.
The host communities “will take a united action” in the form of letters and resolutions expressing their “dissatisfaction” with the Grisanti-Ryan proposal, Ross said.
Should the Greenway law be changed, Ross said, he believes the contracts each entity has signed with the Power Authority would remain in full effect.
If new agreements were needed or changes were proposed, the host communities would have to agree to it, Ross said, “and I could almost guarantee that would not happen.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said the Grisanti-Ryan proposal would nullify any part of the Greenway plan that’s inconsistent with the new law. That provision was part of an earlier draft of the bill, not the version that was introduced in the State Legislature.