Dec 8


Lawmakers indicate no review for Bills stadium

Erie County legislators met Thursday to consider whether the project should undergo a full environmental assessment. The answer: No. That's out of step with similar projects around the state.

Updated: 5:05 p.m.

The Buffalo Bills new stadium is now set to win approval from the Erie County Legislature without completing a full environmental review that’s been required of similar projects around the state.

Legislators on Thursday signaled that they would issue a “negative declaration” next week under the State Environmental Quality Review Act, forgoing an Environmental Impact Statement. That would allow the Bills to skip a full environmental assessment. 

After more than an hour of testimony and discussion, legislators said they felt comfortable moving forward without an EIS, something that was required for all major league sports venues built around the state in the past 20 years.

But lawmakers on Thursday said they felt county staff and attorneys from Phillips Lytle completed adequate studies that identified and mitigated potential environmental impacts, including studies on traffic, stormwater runoff, wildlife impact and more.

“Everything that they’ve said, everything that we’ve heard — the footprint is smaller, the runoff is smaller, the wildlife impact is smaller, the traffic is so smaller — these are all things that gave a negative impact and that’s what we were hoping to get,” said Legislator Timothy Meyers, the Cheektowaga Democrat who chairs the Legislature’s Energy and Environment Committee. 

April Baskin, chair of the legislature, questioned the independence of the SEQR review and if the county was relying on studies completed by the Bills. Environment and Planning Commissioner Dan Castle and Adam Walters, an attorney with Phillips Lytle, said that while the Bills completed some of the studies, independent experts reviewed that work and completed follow-up reports in some cases.

Baskin said she was satisfied, and comfortable with a negative declaration.

“The questions I asked today were all about transparency and making sure that we weren’t just going off of the Buffalo Bills’ recommendations or studies that they paid for, that was super important to me,” she said. “It’s clear that the Department of Environment and Planning … made sure that we had independent eyes and independent studies to hold the Bills accountable.”

The committee on Thursday voted to delay moving forward on a negative declaration, but Meyers said he anticipates his committee approving the designation next week. The full Legislature would then approve the negative declaration. Action is expected next Thursday.

A negative declaration under SEQRA means the county and Bills won’t have to complete an Environmental Impact Statement, the formal document that evaluates potential environmental impacts, proposes mitigations and includes more public input. 

A negative declaration would mean the lawmakers agree that the new stadium will not have “any significant adverse impacts.” 

But skipping an environmental impact study would make the new Bills stadium an outlier among other sports venues built around New York. 

Every big league sports venue built the past 20 years in New York City — Yankee Stadium, CitiField and arenas that are home to the NHL Islanders and NBA Nets — completed Environmental Impact Statements. So did  Sahlen Field and KeyBank Center in Buffalo.

Defending the process

Walters, speaking to reporters after the hearing, said studies his firm and the county completed showed an EIS was not needed. Building the stadium across the street from its current facility reduced potential issues, he said.

It’s noteworthy, however, that the Bills current home, Highmark Stadium, was built before the state established an environmental review process for major projects. Thus, the environmental impact of that facility was never studied.

Donate to support our nonprofit newsroom. Contributions of up to $1,000 made by Dec. 31 will be matched.

“To the extent we were building this in a new location, I think it’s almost a pre-given you would have to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement,” Walters said. “But again, we let the studies determine whether an EIS was necessary. The environmental record in this case is fairly comprehensive.”

Some experts, though, argued that a negative declaration for a project as large as the Bills’ stadium was inappropriate. 

“I have no idea why they wouldn’t have to do an environmental impact statement,” longtime environmental law attorney Richard Lippes told Investigative Post last month. “I’d be very surprised if a negative declaration would stand up in court.”

Other experts noted that Phillips Lytle has a history of taking on clients who want to avoid their projects from undergoing an EIS. Over the summer, for example, the Town of Niagara issued a negative declaration for Amazon’s new 1,000-employee warehouse there after Phillips Lytle lawyers oversaw the completion of several studies related to the facility’s environmental impact. 

Skipping an EIS saves time and money.

“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.

Walters, though, said the county did not ask him or his firm to avoid an EIS. He said the process was above board.

“Going into this process, the team did not have a, ‘Hey, we’re going to get to a neg dec here,’ ” he told lawmakers. “The whole point of doing this was to determine whether there were potential impacts. What we found is [that] because the stadium is old and is not designed to modern environmental practices, there are a number of improvements overall.”

“There were no preconceived notions going into the review,” Walters told reporters after the hearing.

Castle, the county’s environment and planning commissioner, also defended the process. He noted that he was involved in the EIS for the Sabres arena, and that the Bills’ stadium was a different type of project.

“When we have a project that we feel is new, it’s bringing a use to a site that doesn’t have that use …that’s when it’s warranted,” he said of the EIS process. 

“What we saw in our analysis here was, we’re building a smaller stadium essentially on the same site as the existing one. We did our due diligence, we did our analysis and I’m comfortable and I think the staff was comfortable that an EIS is really not warranted here because there are no significant impacts over and above existing conditions.”

More electricity, more gas

Walters told county lawmakers that the new stadium would use more electricity and more natural gas than the current stadium. 

The county previously said the new stadium would use less water than the current facility. 

The greater volume of natural gas — about 20 percent more than the current stadium — caused some controversy. Legislator Joseph Lorigo questioned why the state, which will own the stadium, would use natural gas when it’s attempting to phase out the use of natural gas in new construction. 

Castle said the state hadn’t asked that natural gas not be used in the stadium.

“The state has been involved in this process all throughout,” he said. “They’ve had the chance to push for that.”

Subscribe to our free weekly newsletter

Walters called the design of the stadium “state of the art.” But it falls well short of environmentally conscious elements built into most other NFL stadiums constructed over the past decade.

The Minnesota Vikings’ stadium, for example, became the first professional sports venue to win LEED Platinum status for its use of renewable energy and processes of reducing waste.

And the Atlanta Falcons’ stadium, also LEED certified, includes infrastructure to collect and bail recyclable materials which are then sold wholesale. The proceeds are used to build houses nearby.

Other stadiums, like the home of the Philadelphia Eagles, use solar panels to power the lights.

Of the six NFL stadiums built over the past decade, four are LEED certified or seeking certification, and three completed their state’s version of an environmental review.

Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz has previously said the Bills stadium will not be designed to LEED standards. The topic was not broached by legislators during Thursday’s meeting.