Turtle Farce: Misleading People for a Land Grab

“Oh what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive!” 

Earlier this week, Niagara Falls City Council voted against granting the Turtle building a historic landmark designation. The defeat was devastating to the Buffalo outliers behind the “preservation” movement, led by Carl Skompinski and Bernice Radle. Supporters of the “Save the Turtle” movement were also disappointed after Wednesday night’s council meeting. Some brought signs with slogans such as “Save the Turtle” and “Reawaken the Turtle.”

The vote passed 3 to 1 with Councilmember Donta Myles choosing to abstain.

The original paint job on the Turtle (seen here) was falling off before it was painted over.

For many years, I have always sided with the Haudenosaunee on all issues across the board. If you are unfamiliar with my work, or my perspective on the Turtle, please refer to my previous article in the Niagara Reporter for full context. I’d love to see the Turtle brought back to life, but I can spot a set up from a mile away.

That is why I fully support the council’s decision to deny the landmark designation. 

To myself and many others, it appeared that a few non-Native “preservationists” from Buffalo misled members of the “Save the Turtle” movement, convincing them that; A: The Turtle will be torn down if the historic landmark designation vote doesn’t pass; and B: If the historic landmark designation vote does pass, the Turtle will be reopened as a Native American museum and cultural center.

Neither of those things were true, according to Niagara Falls Deputy Corporation Counsel Thomas DeBoy.

During the meeting, Councilmember Traci Bax asked DeBoy “We’ve heard a lot about outfitting the Turtle as a cultural center…. Does the [landmark] status require NFR to move into that direction and do those types of things?”

DeBoy replied, “If they can figure out a use for the building that preserves, for example the exterior components of the building; they are not forced to put it to any particular use. To be explicit: Historic structure status will not require the current owner to reopen the Turtle as a cultural center or a historical museum, or anything like that.”

Deboy also explained that the landmark status only adds “another layer of oversight,” meaning that the current owner NFR would have to go through “the normal course of getting a permit for electrical and structural inspections from our code officers,” but “what’s different is they will need to get a certificate of authorization… it’s a second permit that they will need to get…that requires them to go directly from the code’s department right to the Historic Preservation Commission to get permission for what they’re planning.”

DeBoy continued,“If you designate the building as an historic structure under the city ordinance, that is not a guarantee that the building will not be demolished. But the demolition process, if it were to be pursued, would have to go to the Historic Preservation Commission for a certificate of authorization.” 

If NFR decides to build a hotel where the Turtle currently stands, then the Turtle will either have to be moved or demolished. There is no reason to destroy the Turtle if a bonafide organization or individual steps forward with enough money to take the building apart and relocate it. It could be a win-win situation for everyone.

Instead of considering all courses of action, certain outliers from Buffalo decided to launch a full-on attempt at strong-arming both NFR and our city council; into submitting to the landmark designation. These non-Native outliers from Buffalo who organized this plot have claimed that “Save the Turtle” is an Indigenous led movement. It was an excellent smokescreen for what looks to have been an attempted land grab. Keep in mind that the Turtle sits atop the most prestigious parcel of land in the city.

Councilmember Donta Myles referenced my previous Reporter article during Wednesday’s council meeting, saying “I’ve been hearing about the building and I’m for preserving this building. The question that I’ve been asking, and I’ve been getting a lot of calls – the question I’ve been asking is: Is it the building, or is it the land that the building sits on? I did read the article, I know someone made mention of it, and it sparked something…”

Myles continued, saying “I read that article, I know a lot of people probably heard about the article in regards to possible relocation.” Myles then asked “have we exhausted every opportunity?” During Myles’ speech, he made it clear that the city council should not rush blindly into granting the landmark status because it could actually be counterproductive to preserving the building.

Former city council member Vincent Cauley spoke out in opposition of the landmark designation, saying “The path that we’re going on is leading to another eminent domain case, which is what we don’t need. We have one, we don’t need that one. We don’t need another one. That one is already disastrous as it is.”

To quote Mark Twain, “It’s easier to fool people than to convince them that they have been fooled.” So I understand why some supporters of the landmark designation may be upset by the city council’s decision. Among that crowd are some of my closest friends. I just hope that they can see that the turtle wax they were being sold by these Buffalo preservationists was actually snake oil.

I believe 99% of the people backing this movement, whether Native or non-Native, had altruistic intentions. It’s unfortunate that so many people were seemingly misled into what I believe would have ultimately become another eminent domain lawsuit between the City of Niagara Falls and NFR. 

The bottom line is that the taxpayers would have gotten stuck with the bill for this lawsuit, which would have undoubtedly lasted for years. Our city council smelled bullshit and they protected the taxpayers from this inevitable scenario.

The landmark designation wouldn’t have created a Native American Cultural Center anymore than it would have created a Disneyland attraction. 

Those good people in the movement were misled by Buffalo “preservationists” into believing that the Turtle would be torn down if it wasn’t granted landmark status. In reality, there hasn’t been any mention of demolishing the Turtle since 2017. 

Supporters were misled into believing that the Turtle would become a museum and a cultural center as a result of the landmark designation. For their part in this, those deceivers should be ashamed. They played with people’s emotions, marching them full on into a battle without providing all of the necessary information; all for what appeared to be a land grab.

Council Chairperson Jim Perry said “So [landmark status] doesn’t basically do anything for NFR. It doesn’t change reality.” Perry added, “There’s a lot of misconception that people don’t understand,” to which city attorney DeBoy stated “There have been no requests or movement to demolish the Turtle. There’s some speakers who make it sound like if you don’t give it historic status tonight, the building will come down tomorrow. There is no paperwork that’s been filed with the city to even start that process.”

DeBoy was basically telling Perry and the other members of the council, “don’t be gaslit by what you’re hearing. None of that is based in reality.” 

What bothers me the most is the fact that children were used to drum up support for this movement under false pretenses. It wasn’t their teacher or their parents who misled these children and teenagers. They are all victims, having been manipulated and deceived into believing these lies. Listen, in Niagara Falls if something sounds too good to be true that’s because it probably is.

At one point, during the voting process, someone from the crowd yelled “What about the children!” Several speakers pointed to the children, begging for sympathy from our council, saying “Do it for the children!”

It pains me to even mention those children because I admire their fire and courage, but I am not the one who used them as political fodder. Unfortunately, they received a crash course in politics, activism and psychological manipulation.

One such teenager, which the Niagara Gazette identified as Madelyn Jacob – an NFHS youth club member from the Cayuga Nation, spoke on the agenda item, saying “The Turtle was not only for education, but for fun… and you took it from us. Like taking candy from a baby!” The Turtle was foreclosed because the owners couldn’t keep up with the payments. It was not “taken” from anyone. The Turtle closed its doors before any member of the NFHS youth club was even born. It was only operational for 12 years. Facts matter.

It seemed that the majority of our city council members weren’t keen to just “sign the contract without reading the fine print.”

Councilmember David Zajac asked, “If this is landmarked, there’s nothing in the ordinance that forces NFR or any other land owner to work with any outside individual or group to preserve the building?” 

DeBoy replied, “I would say that’s an accurate statement. The ordinance doesn’t force them to work cooperatively with anyone but themselves. In other words, they could but we can’t force them to partner with a community group that’s interested in restoring the Turtle. So historic structure status is not going to make that happen. Some other efforts will have to be made outside of the city ordinance and outside of the immediate question you’re asked to vote on tonight.”

Those folks from Buffalo who tried to rush our city council into passing the landmark designation should have just been up front about their intentions. They could have said, “We want to landmark the Turtle so that the city can claim that NFR has mismanaged a historic landmark. Then we will support the city in an eminent domain lawsuit, and the Turtle (and the land it stands on) can then be purchased by a Buffalo developer.”

Some of the organizers of the movement refused to even consider alternative options for preserving the Turtle. If it didn’t include the landmark designation, they didn’t want to hear about it.

Just like when a homeless person asks “Can you give me money for some food?” and you say “Sure, I’ll buy you some food.” Then they get mad and walk away because they didn’t actually want the food… they wanted the money.

DeBoy also explained that the city has not had much experience watching the historic landmark ordinance go into effect and play out. He stated, “There is a clause in the ordinance, section 13 – 35.05 Subdivision J; and it says ‘The approval or denial by a city council of a proposed designation as set forth herein shall be final.’” 

DeBoy explained that this language is untested “but it could be interpreted to say that if the vote is for or against, it’s the only vote to be had. It’s a final vote. It implies that five years from now or five months from now, if you vote no and someone tries to restart the process, that clause may put an end to that. It could be interpreted as a one time opportunity for the council to approve or deny it.”

Despite this fact, the Niagara Gazette reported that “Representatives of PBN had suggested during the meeting that a failure by the council to adopt the Preservation Commission recommendation could lead to legal action.” Ergo; Preservation Buffalo Niagara (PBN) believes that our city council had no legal right to vote “no”.

Then what is the point of a vote to begin with? Why do we even have a democratic process? Those Buffalonians’ sense of entitlement to private property in Niagara Falls is audacious. 

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