Sep 11


A high-stakes battle between WNY counties

Orleans County is suing the IDA of Genesee County in an effort to stop construction of a sewage transmission pipeline that's critical to the development of a sprawling industrial park backed by powerful politicians.

In an unusual move, one Western New York county has sued a neighboring county’s industrial development agency in an effort to stop a key component a major economic development project.

Orleans County filed a complaint Monday in state Supreme Court against the Genesee County Economic Development Center, seeking an injunction to stop the construction of a wastewater pipeline that will service the Science, Technology and Advanced Manufacturing Park, known as STAMP.

The Genesee County EDC “started construction without having all their ducks in a row and did so at their own risk,” Jennifer Persico, an attorney representing Orleans County, wrote in the lawsuit. “This behavior is entirely consistent with their actions throughout this entire process.”

Officials from the Genesee County EDC did not respond to a request for comment from Investigative Post.

The 1,250-acre industrial park, located in the Town of Alabama, has been in the works for more than 13 years and has been backed by officials including Sen. Chuck Schumer, Gov. Kathy Hochul and then Gov. Andrew Cuomo. They’ve pitched STAMP as the future home of 9,000 high-tech jobs, possibly including semiconductor manufacturing.

The park’s remote location, however, has necessitated the construction of significant infrastructure, including a 9.5-mile sewage transmission line. Those extensive infrastructure requirements are partly why STAMP, a decade ago, failed New York’s “smart growth” test, scoring well on just three out of ten criteria.

STAMP has only recently attracted tenants and necessitated construction of water and sewer lines.

Orleans County, in its lawsuit, alleges the Genesee County EDC has broken state law as it sought to construct the pipeline. Orleans County further argues that, if completed, the sewer line would do irreparable damage to the Oak Orchard Creek, which the county relies on for its fishing and tourism industry. 

Specifically, the suit alleges that Genesee County EDC created the Genesee Gateway Local Development Corp., which in turn created STAMP Sewer Works, in an illegal manner. The suit further alleges that STAMP Sewer Works illegally sought land in Orleans County via eminent domain without the permission of Orleans County. 

“Because [Genesee County EDC] could not obtain the consent of Orleans County to construct the [pipeline], it began illegally acquiring easements required for the construction directly from property owners in Orleans County. Again, in violation of [the law],” the lawsuit states.

The county is seeking a permanent injunction to halt the pipeline’s construction.

“There is simply no way to calculate the damage to the ecosystem, the tourism economy, the residents and the sovereignty of local governments that would ensue,” Persico, from the firm Lippes Mathias, wrote in the complaint.

In a bid to halt the pipeline immediately, Orleans County acquired easements for two properties in the sewer line’s pathway, meaning Genesee County can’t build there.

The Genesee Gateway Local Development Corp. and STAMP Sewer Works — both subsidiaries of the Genesee County EDC — as well as engineering firms G. Devincentis & Son Construction Co., Clark Patterson Lee and Highlander Construction are named in the suit.

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Before Orleans County decided to sue, Investigative Post conducted months of reporting into issues surrounding the STAMP sewer line. That reporting revealed that Genesee County EDC and its agents paid some landowners up to 20 times more than others for easements. Two of those landowners were the sisters of former Town of Shelby supervisor Jeff Smith. Smith, in 2020, was a key vote in support of the sewer line.

By contrast, one family that was hesitant to grant an easement said they were subject to “bullying.”

Further, Orleans County officials told Investigative Post that the sewer line could take resources from its own Medina Business Park and harm the trout and salmon that fuel its nearly $30 million annual tourism industry.

Prior to the lawsuit being filed, Michael Dobell, executive director of the Orleans County Industrial Development Agency, said he had many questions about STAMP’s infrastructure to which he couldn’t get answers.

“How does this affect us? What happens to all the time and energy of the IDA?” he said in a July interview. “What happens to the time and energy of the county and the officials in the county to attract and develop existing businesses — and attract new businesses? You know, where do we go from there?”

What the lawsuit says

In a 22-page filing, Orleans County argues that STAMP Sewer Works is a “sham corporation” that does not have the legal right to pursue eminent domain outside of Genesee County. As currently planned, the STAMP sewer line crosses the county line before terminating in Oak Orchard Creek. Orleans County further alleges that Genesee County EDC is illegally funding and driving the construction of the pipeline, which is technically a STAMP Sewer Works project. 

That matters, the lawsuit alleges, because Genesee County’s three entities — Genesee County EDC, Genesee Gateway Local Development Corp. and STAMP Sewer Works — all have different powers under state law. A sewer works corporation, the lawsuit claims, must get the permission of all municipalities it builds and operates in. Documents reviewed by Investigative Post show that the Town of Shelby agreed to join STAMP Sewer Works in 2020. Orleans County, the suit says, did not.

“As a matter of law, [Genesee County EDC] is specifically prohibited from doing precisely what it is doing,” the lawsuit claims. “Orleans County never consented to this project.”

In fact, said Orleans County Legislature Chair Lynne Johnson, she and her colleagues attempted to meet with Genesee County EDC about the wastewater project, but were rebuffed.

“Not that I don’t respect what STAMP can do for economic development in both counties,” she told Investigative Post in August, “[but] we need conversations. We tried to have a conversation with [The Genesee County EDC] in our Legislature in full and they refused to meet with us.”

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The lawsuit further alleges that STAMP Sewer Works is illegally pursuing eminent domain of three properties in Orleans County, something else it can’t do without permission, according to the complaint.

Orleans County alleges Genesee County EDC formed Genesee Gateway Local Development Corp. and STAMP Sewer Works “to circumvent prohibitions against it obtaining land in Orleans County.” 

Orleans County has asked a judge to annul all construction easements Genesee County EDC has already obtained and to issue an injunction to stop further construction of the pipeline. 

Acquiring land in Orleans County

The 9.5-mile pipeline has required the Genesee County EDC to acquire temporary or permanent easements from some 30 landowners. A majority of them have agreed to temporary construction easements. The Genesee County EDC paid many of those property owners between $500 and $1,000, according to records. At its September board meeting, the agency agreed to pay $1,300 for another easement.

But Judy Clonan-Smith and Kathleen Smith — sisters of former Shelby supervisor Jeff Smith — were paid more than $20,000, according to the Orleans County IDA. The pair own 103 acres near the Oak Orchard Creek. The property is the end of the line, enabling the pipeline to discharge into Oak Orchard Creek.

Clonan-Smith did not return phone calls and text messages seeking comment. Kathleen Smith could not be reached. 

Jeff Smith, however, said his sisters took Genesee County’s offer because they assumed if they didn’t, the county would pursue eminent domain against them, win and pay nothing for use of the land. Plus, he said, Schumer supported STAMP meaning there was “a lot of horsepower behind that project up there.”

“We figured they were going to come anyway and my sisters didn’t have money to fight that so they decided to negotiate and get paid for that,” he said.

Smith, who was supervisor at the time of the deal, said he “recused [himself] from it at the time as much as I could because it involved my two sisters’ property.”

However, he voted “aye” in 2020 — along with the rest of the Town of Shelby board — to have the municipality join STAMP Sewer Works, the legal structure set up by Genesee County EDC to make the land takings legal.

Smith resigned from his post last fall after community backlash over a deal he struck for a wind farm on his property.

Only one other property owner has been paid a similar amount as the Smith sisters: Gordon Grimes was paid $20,000 for both a temporary and permanent easement, located about three miles south of the Smith property, records filed as part of the lawsuit show.

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Property owners who didn’t agree to take Genesee County EDC’s offer were subject to treatment one family described as “bullying.” Don and Dana Quackenbush, whose home lies along Route 63, said they don’t oppose STAMP but that “the way they are going about this isn’t right.”

“It seems a lot of corners have been cut and there’s not a lot of transparency,” Don Quackenbush said in a statement to Investigative Post last month. “A lot of pressure was put on us since the pandemic to give [Genesee County EDC] an easement. A lot of pressure. Phone calls, people showing, so many phone calls — like bullying.”

“It got to be a lot.”

The Quackenbushes rejected an offer of $1,000 for use of their land and sided with Orleans County, records show. Don Quackenbush said they did so in part because he frets about whether a major sewer line could affect the gas lines on his property. He also worries about his property flooding if the sewer line breaks.

Dana Quackenbush added that she worries for her neighbors.

“How many of our neighbors were subjected to this? How many people in Shelby didn’t want to sign easements but were too intimidated to question?” she said.

“There’s so much that’s gone on with this project behind people’s backs. We’re sick to our stomachs about it.”

Investigative Post

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