by Joshua Maloni
In the end, the Whirlpool Jet Boat Tours controversy boiled down to one thing and one thing only: a roughly 2,580-square-foot expansion. Despite the objections Monday night of a handful of people who claimed the tourism business is a bad neighbor, the Village of Lewiston Board of Trustees said the only issue members were interested in was the $1 million, two-story addition proposal that sat before them. Finding nothing wrong with the plan, the board approved it by a 4-0 measure.
"We're talking about a development project," Trustee Vic Eydt said. "It's gotten so convoluted."
Mayor Terry Collesano said the project would provide needed bathrooms on the waterfront - a point WJBT President John Kinney hung his hat on when first proposing the expansion.
"The action taken this evening in regards to the expansion of the Water Street Landing building was to help facilitate a more organized and controlled environment from overcrowded and unsightly public restrooms that became objectionable to neighbors, as well as the general public," Collesano said.
The board made one change to the design approved last week by the Planning Board. They opted to grant Kinney's request for folding glass doors.
Kinney had asked to replace the canvas and acrylic partitions encasing his open-air expansion in the first proposal with new sliding glass dividers. The Planning Board, on Jan. 10, expressed concern that the project would significantly change with solid doors. Members approved the expansion, but with the original weather barriers.
"We believe this is the more professional way," Kinney told trustees this week.
"We just find that a much better option than the vinyl," added Kinney's architect, Jim Fittante.
The Village Board agreed.
"I think this is the best solution we've seen," Eydt said.
"This is superior, I think," noted Deputy Mayor Bruce Sutherland.
Village Police Commissioner Al Soluri asked trustees if the revision should go back to the Planning Board for a second look.
"You're going to void that (previous decision) and just go over their heads?" he asked.
Eydt said trustees "have the right to make that decision." But more than that, he said, "(The Planning Board was) confused about the verbiage." Once the glass partitions were described in greater detail, "They didn't have a problem with us passing it," Eydt said, noting he spoke to two members.
"Their intent is they want it open," he continued. "I think this is the best you're going to get it."
Kinney said his street-level deck would provide "a great enhancement" for those looking out on the Niagara River. Instead of a grassy slope leading down to the waterfront, he said people would have a new and improved overlook.
Following the board's decision, Kinney said he was "very pleased."
He commended trustees for mentioning his efforts to publicize the proposal and make it available to the public.
"I'm glad that the board recognized the extent to make this (process) as transparent as possible," Kinney said.
He plans to break ground in mid-March and open the new WJBT U.S. headquarters by Memorial Day weekend.
Residents Not Pleased
Though trustees claimed the expansion talks were wide open and public input was welcomed, some people disagreed.
Earlier in the meeting, residents Bob Giannetti and Claudia Marasco protested the board's previous decisions to sell a stretch of property located underneath and directly north of the WJBT's Water Street Landing restaurant to the business for $1.
Trustees said that decision was made to alleviate risk.
"Private ownership of a building sitting on public property creating a liability was also an important factor in this board's decision," Collesano said.
The land transfer enabled the WJBT to procure variances from the Zoning Board of Appeals. Those amendments paved the way for the Planning Board and Village Board to sign off on the project.
Trustees elected to sell the property after holding a pre-meeting meeting with Kinney last November.
"It was definitely wrong, it was definitely outrageous to sell public land for $1," Giannetti said. He added, "I don't think you ought to be proud of the vote."
Marasco said trustees sold the parcel without public input.
"The residents really got shut out in this whole process," she said. "(That) isn't what we need as a village."
Marasco said the greatest source of information was Lewiston businessman Jerome Williams. The TAM Ceramics owner and Lewiston Management Group principal mailed a letter to residents and held a public meeting at The Village Pub in late November, and then filed an Article 78 lawsuit against the village contesting the land transfer. He has said the expansion is contrary to the municipality's Local Waterfront Revitalization Program.
Williams was not in attendance Monday, but his case will be heard in State Supreme Court next month.
Giannetti asked the board to reveal how much WJBT contributes to the village.
"Let's have it in public; what are the figures?" he asked.
Sutherland answered Giannetti's questions with one of his own.
"How do you quantify something like that?" he asked. Sutherland said sales tax in the village was up 20 percent over the previous year, and said, "I know people (riding the jet boats) come here. They eat in the restaurants; they buy things.
"I think you don't have a number because how do you wrap your hands around it?"
Giannetti asked the board to publicly reveal financial terms of WJBT's 40-year lease with the village.
Sutherland said it's not in the board's best interest to publicly toss around such figures. However, "We can look at the lease some time. Come in (to the clerk's office)."
"You can come into the village hall and check it out," he added.
Giannetti was not satisfied with that answer.
"I think it's only right that that number be published and we see what our board is doing," he said.
"Nobody's hiding anything; it's there," Sutherland said.
In 1996, the Village of Lewiston entered into a lease agreement with WJBT. That contract was modified in 2002. WJBT was to pay a base rent of $10,000 in 2010 (plus 1.25 percent of jet boat sales, up to a maximum of $25,000). That same amount is due in 2011. The rent grows to $15,000 (plus 1.5 percent/up to $32,000) from 2012 through May 1, 2017. The maximum payment expands to $40,000 for years 2018-22. At that point, WJBT can opt out of the lease, or continue through May 1, 2042.
Williams has disputed those numbers.
"There has been a high degree of spirited debate on this matter, of which this board respectfully accepts as your elected officials," Collesano said. "It is our duty to listen, as it is our duty to act when necessary. Knowing the facts before this body and with the advice of our legal counsel, each board member individually and solely voted on this motion.
"It sometimes becomes very difficult, if not confusing, when asked to vote on the merits of a proposal when so many unrelated matters are brought into the equation. This, however, did not slow down the process. With due diligence, each member has now voted their conscience on the merits.
"In time we shall know the answer to our vote. Until then, however, we will not slow down the business of this village. We will move forward."
Collesano and trustees Sutherland, Eydt and Therese Mudd voted in favor of the expansion. Trustee Ernie Krell was excused from the board meeting.