When major league sports venues are built in New York, they almost always undergo a thorough environmental review before a shovel is put in the ground.
And it was the case for KeyBank Center and Sahlen Field in Buffalo, as well as other minor league baseball stadiums around the state, and a 14,000-seat soccer stadium in Rochester.
Yet Erie County officials are poised to give Pegula Sports and Entertainment and the Buffalo Bills a free pass — called a negative declaration — for the 60,000-seat stadium the team plans to build in Orchard Park, effectively skirting New York’s environmental review law.
“It’s just kind of hard to believe that there were no environmental and ecological aspects to this particular project,” said Lynda Schneekloth, a professor emeritus at the University at Buffalo whose work has spanned environmental protection, activism and design.
Granting a negative declaration under New York’s State Environmental Quality Review Act, or SEQR, means Erie County and the Bills won’t have to produce an Environmental Impact Statement, or EIS. Doing so saves the Bills time and money, but also limits public input and risks some issues being overlooked.
Rather than produce an EIS, Erie County and the Bills have opted to complete a slate of more limited studies. Those studies and reports show some nods to environmental sustainability, namely LED lights, low-flow toilets and an improved HVAC system.
Records also show Erie County intends to seek a “negative declaration.” That means there will be no hard look at the myriad ways the new facility might impact the environment and surrounding community.
County officials and the public, then, may never know exactly how the stadium impacts the land it sits on, the streams its stormwater flows into, the air surrounding its parking lot, and the people who live nearby.
It also means there won’t be a full assessment of the stadium’s use of vast quantities of water, electricity and natural gas. For example, both the Bills and county officials have refused to say whether or not the new stadium will use clean power. And the stadium’s nods to sustainability are far short of what other NFL teams have done in their stadiums.
Skipping environmental reviews, while uncommon for large sports venues in the state, appears common in Western New York. Still, the Bills’ stadium would be among the largest projects in the region to avoid an EIS. Attorneys said the Bills skirting such a review could open the project up to lawsuits.
“I have no idea why they wouldn’t have to do an environmental impact statement,” said environmental law attorney Richard Lippes. “I’d be very surprised if a negative declaration would stand up in court.”
No transparency, no environmental ‘hard look’
Both county officials and the Bills have refused to discuss the new stadium’s environmental impact with Investigative Post.
After Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz’s staff refused three times to answer questions from Investigative Post, reporters staked out the 16th floor of the county building — where the county executive has his office — hoping to ask Poloncarz our questions directly. Instead, security tried to eject reporters, only relenting when the journalists pointed out the building is public property.
Several days later, Investigative Post approached Poloncarz at a public meeting. He refused to answer questions, saying that a public hearing on the stadium’s SEQR process would provide answers to our questions.
“You'll get the answers tomorrow, tomorrow,” he said. “That's why we have the public hearing.”
That meeting on Oct. 27 produced no answers.
“There won't be any answers,” Public Works Commissioner Bill Geary told attendees at the hearing.
That included no answers for an Orchard Park business owner, who worried that dust from demolishing Highmark Stadium would negatively affect his business. The online SEQR records promise dust mitigation, but don’t detail specifics.
Poloncarz, while speaking briefly with reporters, refused to give straight answers on stormwater runoff, why a negative declaration was appropriate, and whether clean energy would be used at the new stadium.
“It’s premature to say whether a negative declaration is going to be issued,” he said. “It's premature for me to say one thing or another. It would look like I'm trying to influence it.”
That’s despite county officials asserting explicitly in the SEQR documents that the new stadium “will result in no significant adverse impacts on the environment” and that a negative declaration was appropriate.
Ron Raccuia, the Bills’ point person on the new stadium, also refused to answer questions from Investigative Post at the hearing. Emails and phone calls to other Bills officials went unanswered.
Legislature may waive a review
The final decision on an EIS will be made by the county Legislature.
“I’m in favor of a negative [declaration], I don’t think a positive is appropriate,” said Legislator John Mills, who represents Orchard Park.
April Baskin, chair of the Legislature, cautioned that lawmakers haven’t yet made a decision on whether the Bills can skip an environmental impact review. That vote could come in December.
But other county lawmakers have said they see no reason why the Bills would need to complete such a review.
“My take is that if there were serious concerns that would fail the SEQR process … I think we would know by now,” said Bryan Fiume, chief of staff for the Republican minority. “And nothing has signaled that.”
Legislator John Bargnesi, a Democrat, agreed.
“I reviewed it and I think we should approve [a negative declaration],” he said. “It seems like all the boxes were checked.”
There might be another motive.
The Bills want to break ground in the spring and an EIS can take a year or more to complete. The federal government has estimated the review can cost up to $2 million. Erie County approved spending $266,000 on attorneys to oversee the environmental review process.
“The whole idea is to cut out the expense that's involved, or the time-consuming nature of actually doing the proper environmental impact statement,” environmental attorney Arthur Giacalone said.
Pattern of missed opportunities
Skipping environmental impact statements appears to be a common practice in Western New York.
Investigative Post reviewed three years of state environmental records and found that local governments in Western New York ordered in-depth environmental reviews for only 13 projects since January 2020. Two of those projects were Dollar Generals, which at 9,100 square feet are 148 times smaller than the Bills stadium. Apartments and a solar farm were among the other projects.
The new Bills stadium, though, will be the largest project in Western New York history to skip an environmental review. The current stadium was built prior to the state enacting its environmental law, SEQRA, in the 1970s.
Rather than hiring an engineering firm to guide the environmental review process, as is the norm, the county hired attorneys from the law firm of Phillips Lytle. Those attorneys, Kimberly Nason and Adam Walters, have assisted other clients in efforts to avoid in-depth environmental impact reviews. Nason, for example, recently helped secure a negative declaration under SEQR for an Amazon warehouse in Niagara County.
“That is a fairly common practice where the lead agency has decided beforehand what they want the outcome to be,” said Gretchen Stevens, a biologist at the nonprofit research institute Hudsonia who regularly advises local governments on SEQR. “And they sort of go through the steps in a perfunctory way. And so they feel they can make a negative declaration.”
When Yankee Stadium was built, the Environmental Impact Statement helped save parks. And the EIS for KeyBank Center saved six historic buildings.
A community benefits agreement county and state officials are negotiating with the Pegulas may include such concessions, but everyone involved in that process has signed nondisclosure agreements, meaning there are no public details available. Both legislators and community groups have complained about being shut out of those negotiations.
The lack of cooperation and transparency for the Bills stadium is part of a pattern for Poloncarz’s administration involving the stadium.
The county executive refused to update legislators during the course of negotiations with the Bills and fought a Freedom of Information request filed by Investigative Post seeking a county study on the condition of Highmark Stadium. And Poloncarz insisted negotiations involving the community benefits agreement remain behind closed doors.
Experts say county is making a mistake
Investigative Post interviewed a half-dozen experts knowledgeable about SEQRA and environmental impact reviews for this story. All of them agreed that a full review could address environmental issues in a deeper, more-effective way. Plus, a full review allows for more public input.
Some even said Erie County is making a big mistake by letting the Bills skip the full review.
“We figured the stadium’s gonna last 50, 60 years like the last one. And with the New York State climate goals, we think something should be done to look at fossil fuel emissions, reducing them, you know, clean up the environment as best we can,” said Robert Ciesielski of the Sierra Club Niagara Group.
Ciesielski noted that state climate goals call for a steep increase in the use of renewable energy.
One report for the new stadium stated that despite it using energy-efficient LED lights and screens — something Poloncarz said made the facility more climate-friendly — it will use more electricity than Highmark Stadium. The Bills current stadium uses up to 7,500kW during games and major events. The new stadium will use up to 11,000kW.
It’s unclear, however, what the source of that electricity will be — coal, nuclear, wind, solar or hydropower. New York State Electric and Gas, which will install and own the power lines, declined to comment, as did EnergyMark, the Bills’ energy supplier. Poloncarz and his staff also refused to say what the source of power will be, and it’s also unclear how much natural gas the new stadium will use.
None of the stadium studies mention solar panels or other forms of renewable energy.
“Our goal is to get the cleanest power possible, but I'd have to leave it up to the experts to say exactly what the percentages are and where they're coming from,” Poloncarz told reporters last month. “I will not sit here today and make a commitment on behalf of the Bills.”
Poloncarz has also said the new stadium won’t be built to LEED standards, saying that doing so would add “15 to 20 percent” to the cost. However, the U.S. Green Building Council, which administers the LEED program, said LEED standards typically only add 1 to 3 percent to the cost of a project.
The new stadium will, however, use less water than Highmark, according to the SEQR documents and the Erie County Water Authority. The current stadium uses around 21 million gallons of water per year, the documents show, while the new facility will use up to 15.5 million gallons.
Another study, though, showed that while the new stadium will reduce the volume of stormwater runoff overall — by 18 percent for small storms and 11 percent for large storms — the amount of runoff pouring into Smoke Creek, which drains into Lake Erie, will hardly change.
During standard rainstorms, that report shows, the new stadium will reduce runoff into Smoke Creek by only 1 to 2 percent. And while the new stadium will reduce runoff into Rush Creek significantly for small rainstorms — by 32 percent — larger storms will negate any changes, with only a 2 percent reduction.
Schneekloth said that’s bad news for Lake Erie.
“It's better than it was before, but I'm sorry, it wasn't very good before,” she said. “And we should be setting ourselves a much higher bar about what is possible now, in order to be able to improve that area, rather than just not harm it so much.”
Schneekloth also contended that stadium plans should include public transportation. That’s something Baskin has called for, but it’s not clear if public transportation is part of the community benefits agreement discussions.
Additionally, Katie Eggers Comeau, vice president at the Preservation League of NYS, suggested that demolishing the old stadium presented numerous opportunities to reuse material for other area projects instead of sending it all to a landfill. The SEQR documents do not address the issue.
All of this led Giacalone to conclude that Erie County is “watering down the meaningfulness of the SEQR process and taking away the public's power to have any real input in the process."
"I believe that it's improper to issue a negative declaration,” he said.
Doing so could open the stadium project to lawsuits.
“It is not uncommon for a lead agency to miss one of these weeds … and not pull them properly. That's what allows me to bring my lawsuits and challenge something under a SEQR issue,” Lippes, the environmental attorney, said.
“The easiest case for me to win is when they don't do an environmental impact statement.”