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Village of Lewiston seeks amicable end to jet boat controversy

by jmaloni
Sat, Dec 11th 2010 01:00 pm
by Joshua Maloni

At the tail end of Monday's Village of Lewiston Board meeting, after trustees returned from executive session, a motion was passed extending the deadline for an Article 78 lawsuit to be filed. This action provides Lewiston businessman Jerry Williams an additional 90 days to take legal action contesting variances passed Nov. 17 by the village's Zoning Board of Appeals on behalf of Whirlpool Jet Boat Tours.

While this action may seem puzzling on the surface, village Attorney Edward Jesella said it provides the municipality extra time to work out a more cordial agreement. Had an extension not been granted, Williams would've been forced to take action next week in keeping with the normal 30-day appeal period.

"If we don't do this, he files the lawsuit," Jesella said. "We're already at each other's throats. Perhaps this could be worked out in a different manner?"

Williams, who wasn't in the building when the motion was passed, didn't sound as optimistic when asked.

"They're not going to avoid legal action," he said. "Unless they turn and agree that what they did was wrong."

Such a step seems unlikely, as Mayor Terry Collesano and members of the board have previously stated the ZBA's actions were in accordance with municipal law.

Williams is also exploring legal action over the village's transfer of 197.23 feet of property to WJBT for $1. Here again, Collesano said that sale was final.

Board, Residents at Loggerheads Over Jet Boats

Monday's standing-room-only board meeting began with Collesano's explanation of the street swap. He reiterated that most of the transferred property (101.15 feet) sits underneath WJBT's Water Street Landing restaurant.

"There seems to be a lot of confusion as to what actually happened and what land was involved (in the transfer) to the jet boat corporation. The strip of land that was deeded over ... is on the village right-of-way. However, the building is sitting on top of that land, and it has been sitting there for 100 years or longer," Collesano said. Looking to avoid liability, "We just felt it was in the best interest of the village to deed this parcel over."

Transferring the property over to WJBT enabled the company to secure variances related to a proposed expansion. WJBT President John Kinney has said his tourist attraction is in need of a proper entrance for patrons -- not to mention additional bathroom units and a retail store closer to the street level parking lot.

Williams inquired about the other 96.08 feet of property, which doesn't lie under the restaurant.

"The piece I don't understand is the piece to the right," he said, referring to the strip that runs along the fence overlooking the waterfront. "This is where the expansion is going. So, what we're doing by facilitating this is we're giving him a parcel of land that is currently owned by the village that has direct view of the river. For a dollar, we're gonna pass him the piece of property, which we've already done, basically. And then we're going to facilitate him building a substantial (addition)."

When residents asked trustees why there was no public referendum or public bid on the land transfer, Jesella said, "Every piece of property doesn't go up for public bid."

Calling the sale a common-sense fix, he said, "You don't put up for bid a 4-foot(-wide) piece of property that adjoins the street." 

Many residents asked the board questions not directly related to the proposed expansion. Those who asked about WJBT's taxes, monetary contribution to the village and the residency of its employees were essentially not given a response.

Lewiston resident and village retailer Bob Giannetti said the village's action "was a rush -- a rush -- to give this land away."

The bigger problem, he said, is what he perceives to be a general lack of waterfront vision from the board.

"What are you thinking of in terms of future expansion," Giannetti asked. "Are you really and truly aware of all that you're doing? ... I think the burden is on you folks now. What is your plan?"

The village's Local Waterfront Revitalization Program, formally passed in 1991, has become a point of contention in this matter. Williams asserts the LWRP mandates a clutter-free waterfront devoid of such entities as jet boats. He says the program was created to support local fishermen and charter tours, not large-scale commercial entities. He also said the LWRP prohibits sale of waterfront land.

Kinney, on the other hand, reads the LWRP as encouraging development and private investment along the waterfront.

Trustees didn't say much about the LWRP on Monday. When asked, Collesano simply said, "We're looking at it."      

Jet Boat Open House

On Wednesday, Kinney hosted an open house at Water Street Landing to provide residents with more information on his proposal. As citizens filled the SideBar wing, Kinney outlined his plan and answered questions.

"It went very well," Kinney said. "I was pleased with the turnout.

"The people that were here were here to get the most factual information. ... Some of the complete falsehoods (associated with this issue) ... were somewhat squelched here."

He said the audience seemed pleased with his artist's renderings of the two-story addition.

"They all said, ‘That looks very nice,' " Kinney said.

He suggested the $1 million WJBT expansion would be a viable source of income for the village for years to come.

"This development is probably going to generate, in the next five-to-seven years, about $50,000 worth of tax base in this village. It's nothing but an investment for the village."

Up Next

Kinney is expected to officially present his first submission to the Planning Board on Monday at 6:30 p.m. in the Red Brick Municipal Building. He said his representatives -- Jim Fittante of Silvestri Architects and Niagara Falls attorney John Bartolomei -- would speak more about the LWRP and its relation to the expansion. 

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