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Falls Mayor Defines Forest Land as “Blight” in desperate Eminent Domain land grab

Last week, Niagara Falls residents gathered in the city council chambers for the third public hearing on Mayor Robert Restaino’s idea for a Centennial Park.

It was clear from the speakers that there is opposition to Mayor Restaino’s plan to use eminent domain to take 10 acres of forest land from Niagara Falls Redevelopment (NFR), based on designating the land as urban blight.

The property the mayor covets is on John Daly Blvd across from the Seneca Casino and has been referred to as Parcel 0.

The mayor admits there is no funding for Centennial Park, but assures the public that if he can’t get funding, or changes his mind, he can hand the property to a developer to develop a project of his choosing.

There is no funding for the estimated $20 million cost of taking Parcel 0 through the eminent domain process. Eminent domain is the forcing of a sale of property, but the courts determine the fair price to be paid to the owner.

The mayor assured the public that the city could divert federal funds for road repairs and other services to get about half the cost of forcing the sale of the land.

Mayor Restaino provided granular detail, explaining that the City can borrow $10 million in Community Block Grant funds to acquire Parcel 0 — and pay back $20 million over 20 years.

Mayor Robert Restaino wants Parcel 0 and to stop NFR from developing its land.

While the Mayor says his Centennial Park idea will cost possibly $150 million, he admits he cannot know for certain because he does not have a final plan.

One of the mayor’s sketches for Centennial Park.

Technically, the mayor is not taking NFR’s land to build Centennial Park. He is taking the land because it is “blight.”

If, after he takes the “blighted” land and cannot get the money for Centennial Park, he can give the land to a developer the mayor knows will do something with it other than what NFR, the present landowner, proposes – which is to build a $1.5 billion Niagara Digital Campus.

Many in the audience at the hearing showed interest in NFR’s proposal for Parcel 0 — a $1.5 billion data center and technology hub. The project would bring 550 jobs to the City—along with enhanced broadband and other high-tech spinoffs. The plan would require no taxpayer money.

During the almost four-hour meeting, John Horn, an attorney for NFR, questioned the validity of the mayor’s eminent domain case.

One of the bigger challenges the mayor faces is that forested land is not by legal definition “blight.”

If the mayor can get forested land like Parcel 0 classified as blight, it could set a precedent for government to more easily take forest and possibly farm land from landowners.

The legal definition of blight is associated with building on property, not the land itself.

The Restaino Taking would expand blight to include forest land.

The Restaino plan would change the way vacant land is owned in New York. Private property owners will no longer have priority of using their land as they wish. A new, more, if one will, “woke” idea of the government determining who the right and wrong owners of land should be, by taking from the wrong and giving to the right by labeling land as blight, would prevail.

If the Restaino precedent passes muster with NY Courts, blight will no longer have to be associated with buildings, in one state at least.

Throughout the presentation, Horn challenged the mayor on how the mayor planned to fund his idea, and suggested Parcel 0 isn’t the proper location for Centennial Park.

The location may be moot. Horn acknowledged that Mayor Restaino may never build Centennial Park. But the mayor never said he would. The mayor said he plans to take the land from NFR based on his theory that vacant land can be blight. He does not have to build Centennial Park.

Speakers opposing the mayor’s plans included Ed Hill, Jr., who represented the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) as an International Representative in Business Development. He called the NFR project “much needed” and “an incredible opportunity for the City of Niagara Falls.”

Other speakers included Dennis Ellsenbeck, former National Grid executive; Jim Swzedo of the Niagara Street Business Organization; Jeff Flach, businessman; Mike Gawel, CPA and City Council candidate; and James Abbodanza, an IT Specialist and City Council candidate.

Many speakers said that, even if the mayor is earnest about building an events center, he is building it in the wrong place.

The mayor made clear that his priority is to prevent NFR from developing its $1.5 billion project.

The city’s eminent domain “trees-are-blight” argument will be heard before the Appellate Division of the New York State Supreme Court on May 22, 2023, with a decision expected months later.

If Mayor Restaino can convince the court that wooded land is blight, and blight justifies the public purpose of taking land from the owner, a new partnership between private developers may make way for new precedents in campaign financing exemptions.



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