I was honored this past year when Sam Magavern, as Executive Director of Partnership for the Public Good, asked me if I would be interested in writing a handbook to assist Western New York residents better understand land use and zoning laws, and more effectively express their concerns about proposed projects or changes in land use laws. When Sam approached me, I was well aware of how tirelessly PPG has worked to provide research and advocacy support to community groups and advocates to improve the quality of life and ensure justice throughout the Buffalo Niagara region.
I had some reservations (as I’ll address in a minute), but I took on the task, and PPG published the finished product earlier this week, entitled, “Land Use and Zoning Law: A Citizen’s Guide.” [You can also find the handbook here: environment-_land_use_and_zoning_law_a_citizens_guide ]
Although PPG generously attributes the writing of the guide to me, it was, in fact, a team effort. The final version reflects the evenhandedness and editorial insight of Sam Magavern, as well as the “historic preservation” expertise of Jessie Fisher, Executive Director of Preservation Buffalo Niagara. My sincere thanks to both.
Regarding my reservations, I realized that it would a struggle for me to overcome my skepticism of the zoning and land use process while organizing and drafting the handbook. As I wrote in a July 2018 post following announcement of the Buffalo Billion-related conviction:
“Zoning, land use and construction decisions are made at what I view as the intersection of politics and greed. It’s an unattractive and discouraging place to be if you believe that citizens deserve both an open and fair process, and government officials who truly strive to function lawfully and in a manner intended to benefit society as a whole.”
Much of my perspective and concerns relating to the development process are the result of three decades of dealing with Buffalo City Hall. As expressed in a recent posting regarding a proposed project on Buffum Street near my South Buffalo residence:
“As a lawyer who has spent nearly 30 years representing residents in land use and environmental matters, I have lost virtually all confidence in Buffalo City Hall’s willingness and ability to comply with zoning and environmental review laws.”
Not only has the City of Buffalo failed to consistently apply and enforce its much touted zoning and development law, the “Uniform Development Ordinance” or “Green Code” [one startling example, the Chason Affinity project at Elmwood and Forest avenues], it has managed to render SEQRA, a citizen’s most effective tool, virtually meaningless by its reluctance to require project sponsor’s to prepare draft Environmental Impact Statements. [See my February 2018 post on the virtual extinction of EISs.]
Equally disappointing, when it comes to preserving the Queen City’s historic and architectural heritage, Buffalo’s pro-development and arrogant decision-makers have refused to listen to, or consider, the recommendations of State preservation experts when such advice contradicts a developer’s plans. [See State Historic Preservation office letter re Elmwood/Forest project: SHPO’s 12-19-2016 letter] This myopic stance was tangibly demonstrated in 2017 when, following the “leadership” of Councilmember Joel Feroleto, the Common Council made decisions which led to the demolition of 10 century-old buildings in the Elmwood Village to make room for a massive, incongruous, mixed-development project.
More recently, this position was formalized, at the urging of Councilmember Christopher Scanlon, in a resolution adopted by Buffalo’s Common Council on October 2, 2018 (in furtherance of Maritime Charter School’s Buffum Street expansion plans): “… As a municipal entity, the Common Council is not required to take advice from or consult with New York State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) in any way.” [See Common Council Resolution rescinding special use permit 10-02-2018]
Sophisticated and politically-connected developers, emboldened by their lawyers, have learned to work in concert with compliant government officials to circumvent and maneuver through zoning laws and SEQRA requirements. The only way to reverse this tidal wave will be through persistent vigilance and hard work on the part of residents and community advocates.
I hope PPG’s handbook will assist those efforts as we strive to protect and enhance the character and integrity of our neighborhoods and communities throughout Western New York.
With All Due Respect,