PSR Press Limited, a corporate agent of The Edwin Mellen Press, has filed suit against the Village of Lewiston, Richard Hastings and the EI Team over variances granted by the Zoning Board of Appeals. The respondents were served legal papers within the past week.
On March 11, the ZBA granted four variances to Hastings. The developer had previously submitted a development project to the Planning Board wherein he sought to build a four-story apartment complex with adjoining retail spaces around the Frontier House. The Planning Board rejected Hastings' plan, presented by EI Team architect Timothy E. Kupinski, as it exceeded the village density limit in an R-B-2 retail business zoning district. It also lacked the required number of parking spaces, the necessary amount of green space, and the requisite playground.
With the caveat that the apartment units become condominiums - which Hastings agreed to - the ZBA waived the density, parking and recreational requirements, paving the way for the Planning Board to accept the business plan.
In the lawsuit, the petition seeks an order and judgment "annulling, setting aside and declaring of no legal effect the March 11, 2008 resolution of the Zoning Board of Appeals" on the grounds that "the ZBA granted the requested variances (1) without undertaking any review under the State Environmental Quality Review Act ("SEQRA"); (2) without making any of the factual findings necessary to the factual findings necessary to grant the requested variances; and (3) without providing the required notice and referral of the project to the Niagara County Planning Board as required by the General Municipal Law."
The petition goes on to state, "Upon information and belief, respondent Hastings submitted to the Village an Environmental Assessment Form ("EAF") identifying a number of potential environmental impacts associated with the Project.
"Upon information and belief, the Village has not yet made any determination of significance as to the potential environmental impacts associated with the Project as required by SEQRA."
It claims incomplete paperwork was sent to the Niagara County Planning Board, which would violate section 239-m of General Municipal Law. Specifically, the petition says, "The Village received comments concerning the potential environmental impacts related to the Project from several interested agencies, including the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation ("NYSDEC") and the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation ("OPRHP"), identifying numerous issues that Village must consider pursuant to SEQRA.
"Upon information and belief, the Village never forwarded this documentation to the Niagara County Planning Board."
Additionally, "the Village acknowledged - at the March 11, 2008 meeting at which the variances were approved - that an 'environmental study' will be required for the Project but that such study had not yet been prepared or submitted.
"Upon information and belief, at no such time has such an 'environmental study' been forwarded to the Niagara County Planning Board."
The suit states more historic studies are needed, as well. The Frontier House, which was built in 1824, is listed on both the national and state Register of Historic Places.
In total, the suit reads, "because the Village failed to forward a 'full statement of the proposed action' to the Niagara County Planning Board as required by General Municipal Law §239-m, the area variances were void ab initio, ultra vires and jurisdictionally defective and should be annulled and set aside. ... In addition, even if the materials forwarded to the Niagara County Planning Board were deemed to constitute a 'full statement of the proposed action, the ZBA granted the requested variances without allowing the Niagara County Planning Board the requisite 30 days to review such materials.
"Upon information and belief, the materials referred to the Niagara County Planning Board were received thereby on or around February 21, 2008, while the ZBA granted the requested variances on or about March 11, 2008, fewer than 30 days after receipt of the materials. ... The Niagara County Planning Board did not adopt or report its recommendation to the Village on or before March 11, 2008.
"The ZBA's failure to await the Niagara County Planning Board's recommendation and report on the Project was thus improper and is null and void."
Herbert Richardson, a founder of the Edwin Mellen Press, said on Thursday that he "believes Mr. Hastings should be required to follow all the steps the law requires like any other citizen would have to go through."
Richardson said the purpose of the lawsuit is to, "prevent the project from being built too quickly." He wants Village of Lewiston Trustees to take a step back, review Hastings' development plan, and see if it's in the residents' best interest. With regard to the Frontier House, which he is interested in purchasing through a community group, Richardson said, "Ground-breaking doesn't have to be this summer. ... Why the rush? Let's go through this carefully."
Hastings declined comment, while a message left for Mayor Richard Soluri was not returned.
At the Planning Board meeting last month, Richardson announced his intention to form a group of stakeholders to buy the Frontier House from Hastings. His intention is to create a public-use building that would consist of historical and educational programming. Richardson said the parking lot would remain open to the public, as it is now.
Former Lewiston-Porter Vice Principal Vance Agee has been tasked by Richardson to find national and/or state funding for the acquisition of the Frontier House. He will also seek local contributors. Those interested in donating, he said Friday, can contact him via the Mellen Press site at 450 Ridge St.
On multiple occasions, Hastings has said he has no intention of selling the Frontier House, let alone to Richardson.
Agee and Richardson also are working on the Society for the Enhancement of Historic Lewiston, a group that would be structural in usage and exist to do what its title suggests.
In addition to PSR Press, Mellen affiliates 442-446 Center Street Inc. and 450 Ridge Street Inc. are co-petitioners in the lawsuit.If the State of New York Supreme Court rejects the ZBA's variances, Hastings' plan would be in jeopardy. Without variances, the Planning Board cannot approve the project in its current form.