Hole in the ground

This gravel lot — complete with an indoor-pool-shaped hole — at 1-7 State St. was once the planned site for the Schwartz Family Performing Arts Center in Auburn.

The Citizen file

AUBURN | Once again, the proposed Schwartz Family Performing Arts Center project is facing legal opposition.

Auburn lawyer Joseph Camardo Jr. filed a legal petition on Thursday, Dec. 5, challenging a number of recent actions taken by parties involved with Cayuga Community College's theater project in downtown Auburn at a site next to Camardo's law firm.

The theater project has been subject to court action by Camardo multiple times since 2011. He will be represented by a lawyer out of Rochester, Ronald Hull, for the duration of the procedure.

“Again, we're right back to square one," Camardo said on Monday. "You've got public health and safety issues there, and we're not looking the other way.”

With the most recent litigation, Camardo said he did not file for a temporary restraining order to try stop any work on the project while the case is being considered.

First and foremost, Camardo is challenging the decisions made by the Auburn City Council in approving, and re-affirming, the state environmental quality review of the proposed theater.

Camardo said he is seeking to annul the conditioned negative declaration issued by the city during the SEQR process. If the SEQR is annulled, the project would be put on hold until the environmental impacts are reviewed again. It could be the fourth time the city council would vote on the project's SEQR. It has done so once in 2011, a second time following court action in September and a re-affirmation in October.

In addition, Camardo is petitioning against the decisions made by the Auburn Planning Board in approving the project site plan in November and the Auburn Zoning Board of Appeals in approving an area variance in October.

Furthermore, a letter approving an alternative means of fire protection for the proposed theater — submitted in August by Jeff Dygert, city fire chief, Brian Hicks, city code enforcement officer and Howard Tanner, county code enforcement officer — is also being challenged.

Finally, Camardo said the original Dec. 5 petition will be amended to include a challenge of a building permit that CCC was recently issued for the project. Other than that, Camardo said this would be the only, all-encompassing petition filed against the project.

These parties, as well as involved representatives from the city, county and Cayuga Community College, have been, or will be, summoned to respond to the petition within a 20- to 30-day window.

Many of the issues from the lawsuit were discussed during past Auburn City Council meetings. These issues were raised primarily by lawyers from the Camardo Law Firm and were considered by the council during the SEQR process.

Camardo said he is challenging what he said was a lack of soil and groundwater testing, which should have been done to identify any levels of volatile organic compounds in the project site's soil.

He said chemicals were prominently used for business purposes on the project site before the Kalet Building was demolished. Such volatile organic compounds could, Camardo said, prove hazardous to the surrounding community.

This is especially if the soil, approximately 1,400 square feet of it, is unearthed during construction, Camardo said. Tests would be used to determine the specific levels of VOCs involved.

“When you dig up the soil, what do you do with it?” he said.

Among other issues, Camardo also believes the project does not comply with fire safety regulations because emergency vehicles would not have reasonable access. Dygert has defended the judgment that the theater would be safe and accessible in emergency situations.

John Rossi, the city's corporation counsel, said the city has not yet received any paperwork in regard to the petition. But Rossi expected that the petition would be in regard to many of the points raised during the city's SEQR review process.

"This is not a surprise," he said.

The city will consider the next steps involved in the litigation when the paperwork is received, Rossi said.

Ed Sayles, producing director of the Finger Lakes Musical Theatre Festival, said he was also not surprised that Camardo filed the lawsuit, although he does not believe the reasons are "very substantive." The FLMT is paying half the bill for the multimillion dollar proposal, with the rest covered by funds from the state.

“I'm disappointed because I think we all know how important this project is to the community," he said.

Sayles said the process involved in passing the SEQR, as well as approving the site's plan, was exhaustive and thorough, and the producing director stands by the previous decisions made.

Having received the petition on Monday, Sayles said he has yet to consult with CCC representatives on the next course of action. Currently, the theater is slated for a 2015 opening with bids for the project to hopefully be released by the beginning of 2014, he said.

"It's going to be the same answers to the same questions with the same results, so hopefully we'll be moving forward again," he said. "I have no doubt that this wonderful project will happen."

Staff writer Greg Mason can be reached at (315) 282-2239 or greg.mason@lee.net. Follow him on Twitter @CitizenMason.