John Kinney and Whirlpool Jet Boat Tours propose adding a two-story, 2,700-foot addition to the north side of Water Street Landing. The structure would sit above the current ramp that leads down to the Water Street Landing patio bar. The ground-level floor would be open air, and serve as pre-trip registration. It would also feature a gift shop. The lower level would offer bathroom and changing areas.
by Joshua Maloni
Niagara County developer Jerome Williams intends to file an Article 78 lawsuit against the Village of Lewiston, seeking relief over what he calls hastily approved variances granted for the proposed Whirlpool Jet Boat Tours expansion on Water Street.
Williams says the Village Board of Trustees failed to look into the legal ramifications of adding a structure to Water Street Landing, the WJBT-owned restaurant that currently serves as the starting point for boat riders.
"Now I have to do it," Williams said Wednesday after the Zoning Board of Appeals meeting.
At the heart of Williams' argument is a decision made Monday by the Village Board. After hearing WJBT President John Kinney's plan to add a two-story, jet boat-related structure to the north side of Water Street Landing, the board voted unanimously to discontinue a 196-foot-long stretch of South Water Street situated directly in front of the restaurant. WJBT was previously granted an easement to use the land, which encroaches village property.
Calling the parcel obsolete, trustees transferred the land to WJBT for $1.
"This (parcel) has been a liability on our hands," Village of Lewiston Mayor Terry Collesano said.
The board's action, coupled with four variances granted Wednesday by the ZBA, makes the WJBT proposal legally permissible, thus paving the way for the Village Planning Board -- and ultimately the village trustees -- to approve the application.
Williams disputed the logic of giving away a piece of waterfront land.
"Monday night, I ended up coming into the meeting ... when they were talking about voting on giving Mr. Kinney a piece of property," Williams said. "A portion of that property, the building encroached prior. There was a prior encroachment. But, the piece of the property that they gave to him on Monday night was not encroached, and it had total public access."
"The reason they gave it to him was they said there's liability," he continued. "Well, there's liability on every sidewalk in the village. And if they felt there was some excessive liability, Mr. Kinney should give them some insurance certificate like it says in his lease ... holding the village harmless."
ZBA Chairman John Ritter told Williams his point was off topic. He said his board was voting on variances, and nothing more.
"I'll get to the point," Williams said. "You're going to look at some variances that are using that piece of property as part of that. I'm filing a lawsuit that the village acted irresponsible. One, they didn't have counsel (village attorney Edward Jesella is out of town). I haven't seen anything from counsel -- looking at it, saying that it was right. And I don't believe the Village Board has the right to give away public access property. In fact, I think it's an ordinance that they're not allowed to do that. So I'm going to contest it.
"The problem tonight is, if you give him the variance to build, and he starts to build, the minute -- if we win, and he doesn't have access through those variances -- he then will sue you. So maybe if we put the whole thing on hold, and set it back a month -- or six weeks -- give me a chance, give the village attorney the chance to come back to town, and we can look at the whole thing and see if you gave it to him properly. Maybe at that point, if it was proper and you give him the variance and he builds, there's no problem. But, if it wasn't proper and he doesn't build, then there's no problem either."
Ritter responded by saying, "I have to believe the Village Board acted on what was proper."
"That's how it wound up before this board, is because they think what they've done is right," he said. "That's what we're going to go by."
Williams said a long-form environmental assessment form should've been conducted when WJBT first approached the village about its operation, but the short form was done instead. Village Clerk Anne Welch said the long-form EAF was, in fact, completed.
A second EAF, related to the WJBT expansion, was also completed. Trustees voted Monday to give it a negative declaration, meaning the board doesn't anticipate any significant environmental changes to arise from the new building's construction and expanded operations.
Kinney, in pitching his proposal to all three Lewiston boards, said a driving force in creating the add-on was a need for more bathroom and changing room facilities.
"He needs bathrooms," Ritter said. "This needs to be done."
"There needs to be bathrooms; that doesn't mean he needs a new building," Williams said. "Maybe he should shrink the size of his restaurant? There's plenty of space."
Ritter, who works as a harbormaster, said he knows first-hand of the need for added washrooms.
"This (addition) is going to eliminate that problem," he said. Ritter reminded Williams of tourists caught urinating in Water Street bushes and changing their clothes out on the street in recent years. "You're down there walking around with your family. You don't want to see stuff like that."
ZBA member Ed Finkbeiner reminded the room the board was "here to look at physical layout and things like parking issues and that."
"We're here to debate the setbacks. That's the only thing we're supposed to be looking at. Nothing else," he added. "Our job is to just to look at the physical lines and the requirements for space and parking."
With the ZBA voting in Kinney's favor, the project proposal now returns to the Planning Board for approval.
Williams said he plans to enlist an army of residents to speak out on the validity of the WJBT expansion. He's also creating a website, savethelowerniagarariver.com.
"We're going to run a campaign," Williams said on Friday. "We're going to run it like a candidate for governor."
When told Planning Board members sometimes hold special meetings so as to not hold up development, Williams expressed some chagrin.
"The Planning Board ought to meet at the regular time," he said. "The Planning Board should meet on Dec. 13 (its regularly scheduled night)."
Village residents Bob Giannetti and Claudia Marasco attended the ZBA meeting and spoke out against the proposal.
"I think of that river as sacred, and as wonderful a place as the Grand Canyon," Giannetti said.
"You have not looked at the overall process of what's going on (with the waterfront)," he added. "I'm very concerned that the process is moving along without due public input."
Marasco questioned why waterfront property was sold for $1.
"Isn't the waterfront our main area?" she asked. "Why do we have to give them this property for $1?"
"This is just over-the-top for our village," Marasco continued. "(Lewiston) will be a jet boat destination, not a Lewiston destination."
"The strip we're talking about, it's not developable," he said. "It's just a buffer."
By taking it over, "We feel that there would be a reduction in the village's liability," Kinney said.
"This is really about John's company taking responsibility for his customers," attorney John Bartolomei said.
Kinney called the addition to WJBT's operations phase one of a potential two- or three-phase renovation plan. Part two would likely involve demolishing the south side of Water Street Landing -- also known as the kitchen area -- and building a new addition in its place. Removing the WJBT elements from the south side would also free up space for a new sound system and live entertainment within the restaurant.
Moreover, Kinney said his plan should be considered as part of a move to revamp the entire waterfront. Of the three locations WJBT operates -- including Queenston and Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario -- "Lewiston has the best opportunity to have a really functional waterfront," Kinney said.
He proposed a public-private partnership, which would work to strengthen the shoreline, increase tourism and possibly transport patrons between countries via a cross-border ferry.
Deputy Mayor Bruce Sutherland said a ferry service "would be a big, big win for the village."
Collesano expressed his satisfaction with Kinney's presentation.
"I particularly like the concept of (the design's) openness," he said of the estimated $1 million proposal. "More importantly, I like the idea of the investment; (it's) a large investment to make. That's great for our village."