By Rick Pfeiffer
Niagara Gazette — A New York State Supreme Court justice has halted work on construction of the Maid of the Mist Corp.'s new boat storage facility in the Niagara Gorge on the U.S. side.
Justice Ralph Boniello III on Friday issued a temporary restraining order to stop rock scaling at the site after lawyers for a group known as the Niagara Preservation Coalition raised concerns about whether all the necessary environmental reviews had been completed.
Preservation Coalition President Lou Ricciuti, a Falls resident, denounced the plans for the new storage facility in an emailed news release that appeared to have been prepared before Boniello's action.
"It would be utter madness to allow for-profit commercial construction at this site and of this scale at Niagara Falls without a full environmental and historic analysis as well as public input,” Ricciuti said. "To jeopardize the site for one single commercial enterprise is completely unacceptable."
After the issuing of the injunction, New York State Parks Commissioner Rose Harvey and New York Power Authority President Gil Quiniones said all appropriate environmental requirements were being met at the construction site.
"The New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, the New York Power Authority and other state agencies have taken the appropriate steps to ensure that the planned capital improvements at the Schoellkopf site for the winter boat storage of the Maid of the Mist tour vessels comply with all applicable state and federal laws and regulations," they said. "We are confident that the (court) will conclude, upon further review, that the proper steps have been taken in this matter and that the capital improvements at the Schoellkopf site should be allowed to proceed."
Those close to the project have suggested that Ricciuti's group has ties to Hornblower Cruises & Events. The California-based cruise company recently won a contract to provide boat tours in the gorge from the Niagara Falls, Ont., side of the falls.
Hornblower has been accused of trying to block the dock construction. Officials of the cruise company have denied that charge.
However, Hornblower has also filed a lawsuit that challenges the Maid of the Mist’s current tour agreement with the state.
Officials with the Maid of the Mist have said they need to move quickly to construct a new boat storage facility on the American side of the falls before the up-coming tourist season ends and Hornblower takes over its Canadian operations next year.
The Maid of the Mist had previously stored its boats on the Canadian side of the falls during the winter.
In a statement issued late Friday afternoon, a spokesman for the Maid of the Mist also suggested that the company's competitor was behind the coalition lawsuit.
"It is our strong belief that all permits were issued and procedures followed in accordance with applicable law," the statement read. "This is just more of the same from Hornblower."
Earlier this week, crews embarked on an effort to remove loose rocks, boulders and other potentially hazardous debris in the gorge near the Gorge Discovery Center in Niagara Falls State Park as part of what state parks officials and Maid of the Mist representatives characterized as a process regularly done to “protect those using the trails for recreational purposes” from being hit by falling debris.
The process was expected to take between four and six weeks to complete and is being financed by the Maid of the Mist Corp., which described the work as being part of the memorandum of understanding signed by the firm's owner, James Glynn, and Gov. Andrew Cuomo in December. The agreement authorized the Maid of the Mist to move forward with the construction of a new storage facility to allow the company to store its fleet at the Schoellkopf Power Station site on the American side.