Niagara Gazette

February 25, 2013

Public input sought as Fort Niagara buildings project moves forward

By DON GLYNN
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — YOUNGSTOWN — Another project to restore three landmark buildings in Fort Niagara State Park — one as an upscale inn — and build two new ones has been on the drawing boards for two years. There’s still a hangup, however, because more comment is now sought to comply with federal regulations.

The state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, has announced that public input on the conversion project proposed by an area developer will be accepted until March 8 as provided under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).

Karen Terbush, an analyst with the state parks department’s Environmental Management Bureau, said that when the project was first submitted it was not immediately clear that the parks agency was required to meet other specific conditions because it had received a grant under the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund. For the project to move forward, an environmental assessment must be completed under the NEPA and the State Environmental Quality Review Act with the National Park Service then evaluating the impact of the planned conversion.

Also, under the federal regulations, the 20.1-acre development site in Fort Niagara State Park may be converted by a private developer as long as replacement parkland of “equal fair market value” is provided, Terbush said. As a result, the parks agency stated it would replace the parcels taken for the Fort Niagara project with 140 acres in Bear Mountain State Park in Orange County.

While the replacement acreage won’t directly benefit the Niagara region, it should prove a valuable addition to the hiking trails and other outdoor use for Bear Mountain State Park in the Hudson Valley, an area that has been frequently threatened by development. 

“It’s important to note the 20 acres in Fort Niagara park are just being leased under a long-term contract,” Terbush said, “We (state parks) still own it and the public will have full access to that property. The land is not being sold.” 

In 2010, William Huntress, who owns Acquest Development, an Amherst-based firm, unveiled plans to convert the former Naval Barracks (1939) in the center of the park to a 48-room inn and the century-old Commandant’s House into a bed-and-breakfast with luxury suites. The small Post Theater adjacent to the barracks building also would be restored. Huntress said  he intended to hire Nunzio DeSantis of Dallas, Texas, a leading resort architect.

The developer said that his project costing upwards of $20 million would include converting the 60,000-square-foot barracks to guest rooms, meeting space, a library, living room and gift shop, 22 other guest rooms on the second floor and another 17 rooms on the third level. While the barracks has been mostly vacant since the 1960s, it was used temporarily by the Civilian Conservation Corps from 1978 until 1982, a park spokesman said.

The Commandant’s House would offer four suites on the three floors, according to the Huntress plan. The two new buildings eyed for the development would include a ballroom, conference center and a restaurant.

W. Kirk Hastings, a Youngstown contractor, had proposed a similar restoration of the three park buildings in the early 1990s but that public-private project was halted after his unexpected death.  

For decades, the present 283-acre park was part of Fort Niagara, an Army base until it was decommissioned in 1963. In the mid-1940s, it served as a camp for German prisoners of war. 

People interested in submitting comments about the current park redevelopment plan may obtain copies of the environmental assessment form at the regional state park headquarters in Prospect Park. The document also is available on the web: nysparks.com/inside-our-agency/public-documents.aspx.