A State Supreme Court justice Friday put a temporary halt to construction on the Maid of the Mist’s new boat storage facility in the Niagara Gorge,
Judge Ralph A. Boniello III signed a temporary restraining order requested by a group known as the Niagara Preservation Coalition, a move that bars the Maid of the Mist from continuing work on the $32 million facility until legal objections are ironed out.
The storage facility, to be built at the site of the former Schoellkopf power plant, is critical to the Maid of the Mist’s future because the company lost its storage area when the Ontario government granted rights to the tours to Hornblower Cruises last year.
The Niagara Preservation Coalition, headed by Louis Ricciuti, went to court with a series of objections to the project, which already was facing a legal challenge from Hornblower, a California company.
The Maid of the Mist has begun what it says is preliminary work on the gorge wall, removing potentially dangerous loose rocks.
But the preservationists say it’s the beginning of construction.
Linda R. Shaw, an attorney for the Niagara Preservation Coalition, said the group wants proof the proper environmental reviews for the site have been completed.
“They’re about to put a huge crane on the edge of that cliff,” Shaw told The Buffalo News.
Supporters of the Maid of the Mist have said they believe the preservation group was created by those close to Hornblower to try to delay the dock construction, a charge Hornblower officials have denied.
However, both Hornblower and the Niagara Preservation Coalition use the same lobbying firm, Nicholas & Lence Communications of New York City. Also, Niagara Falls Mayor Paul A. Dyster told The Buffalo News last month he had never heard of the preservation group and had “a sneaking suspicion it might have been created solely for the purpose of attacking Maid of the Mist’s project on behalf of the Canadian competition.”
Maid of the Mist officials also have said they believe the group is bogus.
And after the restraining order was issued Friday, attorneys for the Niagara Preservation Coalition met with Hornblower’s local attorney.
The suit by the preservation group aims to save the ruins of the Schoellkopf Generating Station, the hydroelectric plant whose 1956 collapse into the gorge led to the construction of the Niagara Power Project.
New York State Parks and the Power Authority said in a joint statement that they were sure the planned project complies “with all applicable state and federal laws and regulations.”
“We are confident that the New York State Supreme Court will conclude, upon further review, that the proper steps have been taken in this matter and that the capital improvements at the Schoellkopf site should be allowed to proceed,” the agencies said.
The coalition suit notes that State Parks filed an application in December for the powerhouse ruins to be placed on the National Register of Historic Places, while at the same time allowing the Maid of the Mist construction project that, the court papers assert, would damage some of the remains and bury much of what is left under a layer of concrete.
The lawsuit also seeks to invalidate the Power Authority’s Feb. 19 declaration that the Maid project would have no negative impact on the environment, and it demands a full environmental review.
Maid of the Mist officials say they are following all rules.
“It is our strong belief that all permits were issued and procedures followed in accordance with applicable law,” said Maid of the Mist spokesman Kevin Keenan. “This is just more of the same from Hornblower.”
Hornblower officials say they are simply interested in a fair shot at the project.
“Whatever happens, we want it done right,” said John P. Bartolomei, Hornblower’s local attorney. “[Hornblower CEO] Terry MacRae has put on the table $100 million more than the Maid of the Mist.”
Both cases are to receive their first hearings in court Thursday before State Supreme Court Justice Catherine Nugent Panepinto. Boniello signed Friday’s injunction in her absence.
Hornblower, which runs tours in San Francisco and New York City, is taking over operation of the boat rides from the Canadian shore in 2014.
Last year, the Ontario government chose Hornblower from more than a half-dozen proposals to provide boat trips on the Canadian side of the falls, ending its no-bid lease with the Maid of the Mist.
That move threatened the future of the tour company, which has carried the Maid name for more than a century and has been owned by the Glynn family since 1971.
In December, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo came to Niagara Falls to announce a new deal that would allow the Maid continue to operate on the American side.
That deal blocked Hornblower from bidding on providing the attraction from the New York State side of Niagara Falls.
In January, MacRae, Hornblower’s president, said he was willing to pay double what the Glynn family will pay to the state for the right to run the tour operations.
On March 4, Hornblower filed a lawsuit in State Supreme Court against the Maid and officials in the Cuomo administration, challenging the legality of the December deal.
In court papers, Hornblower called the deal to allow a new U.S. storage facility a “misguided and inexplicable effort to enable MaidCo to continue generating profits for itself” without a fair and equitable bidding process.
The state says the deal is legal because it’s an amendment to the 40-year contract already in place.
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