UB will resume groundwork today on the Skinnersville Road apartment complex after a State Supreme Court justice Tuesday lifted his temporary restraining order, which had halted construction. The order was issued Monday by Justice Vincent E. Doyle as a result of a lawsuit filed by a Skinnersville Road resident who is attempting to bring construction to a standstill.
The State University of New York, the University at Buffalo, the UB Foundation Inc. and the UB Alumni Association were all named in the lawsuit brought by Rita Foreman, resident of the Beacon Park condominiums on Skinnersville Road and a self-proclaimed "avid environmentalist."
The $11 million complex, slated to open in August 2002, will house 232 graduate, professional and married students on the northwestern edge of UB's North Campus.
Foreman's suit claims the university's building plans violate the State Environmental Quality Review Act which classifies the construction of 250 or more new residential units as a "Type I" action, a category more likely to require an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS).
The university did not undertake an EIS for the Skinnersville complex because the number of units falls below the SEQRA threshold, according to Vice President for Student Affairs Dennis Black.
Foreman's complaint, however, argues the Skinnersville apartments are part of a larger student housing initiative that, as a whole, exceeds the 250-unit baseline. Segmenting a project in order to evade the preparation of an EIS is a violation of SEQRA.
Black said the administration does not comment on pending litigation. He referred comment on the suit to the State Attorney General's Office, which represents the university in legal proceedings. UB's counselor Tim Hoffman could not be reached by press time.
Black said it is imperative that construction continues on the site because winter is rapidly approaching and the buildings' foundations and shells must be in place before the ground freezes.
In an interview with The Spectrum prior to commencing legal action, Forman described the landscape around Skinnersville Road as a "remarkable ecosystem" and objected to the university's selection of the site for housing. She contends the site, which includes Bizer Creek and abuts Letchworth Woods, should be preserved as a natural area.
"If they had no other choice, if they had no other location at all on campus, I could really understand that because, believe me, I'm not opposed to housing. I know UB needed it badly," Forman said, "[but] there could have been a better choice." She suggested a location closer to the academic core, such as the fields surrounding the University Bookstore.
President William R. Greiner responded to Forman's questions when she phoned into the Sept. 10 segment of WBFO's "Talk of the University," before legal papers had been served.
"There is nothing wrong with us, I don't think, building some housing on some open land adjacent to other such housing when we have a very significant need for housing for graduate students and married students."
Greiner said the university does not have unlimited options, and is constrained by many factors in the selection of an appropriate site.
"If you want me to tell you what housing sites we have available to us, we don't have nearly so many as you think," said Greiner. "We're going to end up probably needing somewhere in excess of 10,000 beds on [North] Campus if we're going to make it actually work for what it was intended to be."
Greiner characterized Forman's objections as a classic case of "not in my backyard."
"For the people across the street, it's a nice thing to have an empty backyard and for them to look out on this, but on the other hand, this is space provided to the university for its use."
Forman maintains this is does not apply to her, as her primary residence is in Lewiston.
"The whole acronym of NIMBY doesn't really jive perfectly with a condominium owner because you don't have a backyard, you have grass that's being chemically treated," she said. "My only and main interest is for the environment."
On the WBFO show, Black said the Skinnersville apartment design blends well with the surrounding neighborhoods.
"When we looked at the sites around campus, we looked at that site and thought, quite frankly, that townhouses for our graduate and professional students would be the most complementary use of that area ... given the townhouses that are across the street."
He further noted that the university attempted to mitigate environmental impacts when designing the complex. For example, 95 percent of the natural growth trees on the site were preserved, and the Skinnersville community building will be a "Green project" designed with environmentally friendly principles - the first such project on campus.
"We've worked hard to make sure that we've located the buildings on that site to avoid or limit any impact on the protected areas there - and there are some. We're staying away from the creek and the wooded areas on the west side of the creek," Black said on WBFO.
The hearing on the issue is scheduled for Friday morning at the Erie County Courthouse.