by Joshua Maloni
Lewiston resident and TAM Ceramics owner Jerry Williams lambasted Whirlpool Jet Boat Tours at Monday's Village of Lewiston Board of Trustees meeting, questioning the company's existence in the River Region and claiming its operators have not fulfilled the obligations of their lease agreement.
"I don't understand what benefit he brings," Williams said of WJBT President John Kinney.
"I think this board needs to terminate the lease," he added.
WJBT operates off docks located on Water Street through a 40-year lease with the Village of Lewiston. When the Village of Lewiston received this waterfront land from the state of New York in 1994, Williams said the municipality was not entitled to lease that property to a for-profit entity. He cited the 1972 Court of Appeals of New York public trust case Lake George Steamboat Co. Inc., et al. v. Robert M. Blais, et al., as trustees of the Village of Lake George.
In that case, an Article 78 proceeding was initiated to bring about the discontinuance of privately used village dock facilities. The Court of Appeals ruled the village had no authority to make an agreement with a for-profit organization, writing the "village received the lands for public use and could not lease dock and related facilities to privately owned corporation which operated sight-seeing boats."
Williams also cited the New York Supreme Court, Appellate Division, Second Department, ruling in the matter of James M. Kenney, et al. v. Board of Trustees of the Incorporated Village of Garden City, et al. The court held that "public trust for recreational uses was impressed upon property, precluding its lease to private commercial entity."
In an e-mail response, Kinney wrote, "WJBT owns commercial property in the Lewiston waterfront. The property has been used commercially for over 100 years. WJBT operations on the Niagara River and in the Lewiston waterfront are 100 percent legal."
Moreover, in a phone call to the Sentinel, Kinney said Williams' point here "is moot" because "we own land there" (purchased from the Turgeon family in 2002).
Kinney said WJBT, technically speaking, really doesn't need a lease agreement, as it operates off its own property. In fact, he said, those riding a jet boat have to cross over WJBT property to enter on to village land. But, "We don't want to inhibit the public access," he said.
Newly appointed Village of Lewiston Attorney Edward Jesella said he hadn't been privy to the Village of Lewiston's lease agreement with WJBT, but would look into the matter.
Williams said the jet boats are creating a conflict with recreational boaters. Williams is, himself, a recreational boater.
"There's a constant hammering of our shoreline," he said, adding, "Environmental disasters happen slowly. That's why they're environmental disasters."
To this charge, Kinney wrote, "During WJBT 2007 lease renewal with the Town of Niagara-on-the-Lake, WJBT was mandated to fund a study relating to shoreline erosion. The study was conducted by Urban & Environmental Management. UEM is Niagara's leading firm relating to the Niagara River Gorge. The study clearly and scientifically shows that the greatest forms of erosion on the Niagara River and Lake Ontario are from the effects of the raising and lowering cycles of the power plants and the impacts of wind-generated waves and ice scour on the shorelines. The greatest areas of erosion were found along Lake Ontario at Niagara Shores Park off Lake Shore Road and the Lake Ontario shoreline east of Fort Niagara. The commonality of these two areas beside having tremendous erosion is that jet boats do not operate in these areas of significant erosion. The areas where jet boats do operate were found to have minimal or no erosion. The results of this study were found to be consistent with studies conducted by the New York State Power Authority."
Next, Williams said WJBT does not pay its lease agreement on time, or in full. Village records obtained by the Sentinel indicate WJBT has no outstanding balance. According to the village's records, WJBT is paid in full as of April 30.
The Village of Lewiston entered into a contract with WJBT in 1996. That lease agreement was revised and modified in 2002. Accordingly, WJBT is to pay a base rent of $10,000 this year and next (plus 1.25 percent of jet boating sales, up to a maximum of $25,000) and then $15,000 (plus 1.5 percent/up to $32,000) through May 1, 2017. The maximum rent expands to $40,000 for years 2018-22. At that point, WJBT can opt out of the lease agreement, or continue through May 1, 2042.
Kinney responded by writing, "WJBT is currently working with the Village of Lewiston to improve the waterfront in Lewiston for village residents, local boaters, and the visiting public. Over the last 13 years WJBT has paid the Village of Lewiston over $250,000 in lease payments for property which WJBT owns. WJBT has also paid the property taxes on this property. In June, WJBT made a proposal to the village to jointly improve the waterfront. The proposal maintains the revenues enjoyed by the village in our current agreement in spite of the property ownership matters.
"It has been about 35 years since the Lewiston waterfront has had a ‘face-lift.' As the president of WJBT and the owner of the Water Street Landing property, my objective is to enhance Lewiston's waterfront and grow the business and employment opportunities WJBT believes are available to the village."
Not Giving Back?
Williams also asserted WJBT is not a good neighbor in terms of contributing back to the community.
"I don't know if he (Kinney) provides any massive economic (contribution to the) village," Williams said. "I see buses come in, and buses go out."
"Does he give any money back to the community?" he asked.
Kinney said WJBT does, in fact, bolster the local economy.
"WJBT has consistently sponsored Artpark, Peach, and Jazz festivals, and countless fundraisers for medical and social causes," he wrote. "Our generosity has been acknowledged by the Artpark board, the Village of Lewiston, the NTCC (Niagara Tourism and Convention Corp.), and multitudes of private causes."
Not Hiring Locals?
Williams said, "This guy doesn't hire anybody (locally)," and suggested all of the WJBT workers live in Canada and are boated over to Lewiston each working day.
Kinney said, "Just like the Maid of the Mist, WJBT are Canadian registered vessels. Under maritime law, the crews of vessels must be from the country of origin of the vessel. That being said, WJBT and Water Street Landing (a restaurant WJBT owns) employ about 50-60 staff from Lewiston and Western NY that support our boating operations and restaurant facility."
Other residents have intimated to the Sentinel that Kinney subverts customs and immigration checkpoints.
That's not true, Kinney wrote.
"As it relates to border security, I don't think it would surprise anyone that U.S. Customs and Border Protection take their job very seriously. Every member of the WJBT is pre-screened by USCBP and must be interviewed at U.S. Immigration prior to crossing the river by boat. Every time the boat crosses the river, the crew on board must be reported to U.S. and Canadian Customs and Immigration. Furthermore, WJBT assists U.S. Border Patrol and the U.S. Coast Guard in border security matters. Recent examples of this include WJBT's identification of fugitive Bucky Phillips' attempt to enter Canada by raft in the Niagara Gorge. By alerting U.S. and Canadian authorities of Phillips inflating a raft on the U.S. shoreline within the gorge, Phillips had to abort his attempt to cross into Canada and elude U.S. authorities. Also, just two weeks ago, two persons operating a motorized ‘zodiac' flipped their boat in the rapids, and were turned over to the USCG, Niagara County Sheriff, U.S. Border Patrol and Lewiston Police by WJBT."
Lewiston Mayor Terry Collesano said his board would re-assess the village's relationship with WJBT.
"At this time, we are in negotiations with (Whirlpool Jet Boat Tours)," he said.
Without going into specific detail, Jesella said municipal decisions were made prior to his appointment that "I would never have allowed.
"Now we have to unravel what was done."
Kinney said WJBT has hired an independent land surveyor to assess the property lines and tax mapping related to his business. He said his company is in the news as a result of the state's 20-year easement lease with the Village of Lewiston. That agreement ended on July 18.
Regardless of lease agreements, or lack thereof, Kinney said WJBT "would like to work collaboratively with the village" to create a better Lewiston waterfront -- and waterfront experience -- for both residents and tourists.