Judge says environmental review was sidestepped, orders Port to revisit the review
City site plan and zoning laws do not apply to Port, according to the state court ruling
OSWEGO — The Port of Oswego Authority bypassed state environmental review laws by changing the scope and design of a large storage facility, according to a Friday state court ruling, which halted construction on the storage building until a full environmental review is completed.
The city of Oswego and the Port of Oswego Authority (POA) have been locked in a bitter dispute since late June regarding the construction of a steel-frame structure that blocks views of the iconic West Pierhead Lighthouse and Lake Ontario from portions of the east side of the Oswego River. City officials previously asked for, and were granted, a temporary restraining order, which was extended Friday as part of a series of decisions from State Supreme Court Justice Gregory Gilbert.
The city filed an Article 78 proceeding — a legal process used to appeal the decisions of state and local agencies — in July that claimed the Port’s design for a grain storage facility, known as Dome 4, was materially altered in both size and shape after the Port board’s approval of a negative declaration under the State Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQRA).
The SEQRA process requires a sponsoring or approving governmental body to identify and mitigate any significant environmental impacts of a development. The SEQRA process is intended to consider social and economic factors with equal weight to environmental and ecological impacts.
A negative declaration, such as the Port's, is essentially a claim the project would have no significant environmental impacts.
Port City officials and their attorneys have argued the Port’s planning and approval lacked transparency and POA officials failed to properly navigate the approval process, specifically by building a larger structure than was approved by the public authority. POA filed a response asking for dismissal and argued the legal challenge came too late and the city failed to prove a violation occurred.
City officials, among other claims, argued the Port’s environmental review was completed under the assumption of a smaller, less invasive structure. In a court filing, the city said the larger building under construction “completely obliterated” views of the historic lighthouse and Lake Ontario.
The Port has contended there is no substantive difference in the environmental impact between the smaller and larger structure.
Gilbert, in Friday’s ruling, said “the court is not in favor of allowing SEQRA to be sidestepped,” and noted the Port’s argument there is no difference in the environmental impact of the initially proposed 55-foot-tall structure and the 70-foot high building under construction “has no merit.”
“The Port was required to amend or rescind the negative declaration once the design of Dome 4 was substantially changed,” Gilbert wrote in his decision, adding “the failure to complete SEQRA review of the square grain storage structure was arbitrary and capricious.”
In court filings, POA officials claimed the larger, square building was approved in December 2020 when a construction bid was accepted. Gilbert pointed out the December acceptance came more than two months after the SEQRA review was completed with the POA board determining the project would have no significant adverse environmental impacts.
No SEQRA review of the larger building ever took place, Gilbert said in his decision. Gilbert said “there is no mention by email, agenda or minutes of a square grain storage structure” between the November SEQRA determination and the December acceptance of the construction contract.
Port documents do not state what was to be built, according to Gilbert, and there is no evidence indicating the Port revisited the environmental review.
In addition to annulling and rescinding the Port’s approvals of the large storage building, Gilbert ruled that further construction of the building be halted until the POA board completes the full SEQRA process.
Gilbert did rule in favor of the Port on one position, confirming the Port is not subject to city zoning or planning laws. The city had argued the Port failed to consult city officials for the site plan approvals typically required by local zoning law, but Gilbert made clear the Port is not subject to those conditions.
Both parties claimed victory in Friday statemetns following Gilbert’s ruling.
Oswego Mayor Billy Barlow, who has vocally and publicly criticized the Port over the matter, said the city “has been vindicated by this ruling.”
“The clear, open, transparent and public process for approving this project was not followed by the Port and the court’s recognition of the concerns and objections raised by the city is a clear ruling in favor of open government,” Barlow said.
City Attorney Kevin Caraccioli, who raised the issue of the project's impact on the viewshed with the Port as early as November 2020, called Gilbert's ruling "satisfying" and said the decision stopped a "clear overreach of public authority." Caraccioli commended the city's legal team, which included outside assistance from Syracuse-based Hancock Estabrook, for developing "a strong case in defense of the city of Oswego, its residents, businesses and guests who identify the significance of the lighthouse."
POA Executive Director William Scriber, in a statement Friday, said the court’s decision halts construction of one component of the Port’s ongoing expansion project, but “otherwise denies the city’s requested relief.”
Scriber said the Port would undertake the environmental review of the storage facility portion of the project and “then proceed accordingly.” Scriber claimed the court’s decision “otherwise confirms all the Port’s actions” and pointed out the decision verified that the Port is not bound by city law.
"We are pleased that the court confirmed the Port's autonomy as a New York state entity and is not bound by city laws or ordinances," Scriber said. “The project the city’s lawsuit sought to dismantle is a vital component of our long-term, competitive ability and survival.”