ROCHESTER – Oral arguments regarding the city of Jamestown annexing a piece of property that currently lies within the Town of Ellicott and Village of Falconer were made Wednesday morning in a state appellate court in Rochester.
Legal representatives for both the city and the sides opposed to the Annexation (Ellicott, Falconer, and the Falconer School District) appeared before the 5-members of the New York State Supreme Court Appellate Division – Fourth Department.
At issue is the city wanting to annex the Jamestown Board of Public Utilities (BPU) Dow Street Substation property, which it claims is eligible for annexation because it has an access point along the city line with the township. The substation serves as the interconnection point between the local Jamestown-service area power grid and the state electric grid.
Currently the city – through the BPU – pays approximately $325,000 annually in taxes on the property. If it were to be within Jamestown the BPU would not have to pay any taxes and would instead pay about $80,000 in PILOT payments to BOTH the city and the Jamestown School District – resulting in a net savings about at $160,000 each year. The town, village and school district all oppose the annexation because of the financial impact it would have on their annual revenue lines.
In late August 2017 the Jamestown City Council unanimously approved the annexation and in early September 2017, both the village and town disagreed with the annexation effort and voted against it. As a result, the city filed to have the settled in court to determine whether or not the annexation can occur.
To make its case for the annexation, the city argues that it is in the public’s interest because the city’s own professional public safety employees would be better capable of responding to any emergencies that take place on the property. In addition, the city claims all BPU electric customers, including those that live in Ellicott and Falconer, would benefit because the annexation would reduce costs to the BPU’s electric division and that would have a positive impact on future electric rates.
Prior to Wednesday’s oral arguments, a three-member “referee” panel assigned by the court heard both sides of the annexation argument during a preliminary hearing last fall. It was learned on Wednesday that the referee’s recommendation was in favor of dismissing the annexation effort on the grounds that it was not in the interest.
Part of the argument by the town, village and school district against the annexation is that the city’s filing to have it settled by the court didn’t occur within appropriate timeline, under state law. The opposition’s attorney, Pietra Zaffram from the law firm Harris Beach, said the city failed to initiate court action on time because it didn’t act within 30 days of the village and town’s vote against the annexation.
“The city was on notice. The notice of the meetings were made public. There was a significant amount of press on this issue. They had actual notice that there was a disagreement. And a fair and accurate reading of the plain-read of this state statue required those filings. They knew, or should have known based on a plain-read, that those filings would have to occur by virtue of that disagreement,” explained Zaffram, who added that it wasn’t the obligation of the town or village to immediately notify the city once they voted against the annexation. “We had no duty and, respectfully, we’re not operating in a vacuum here. This was a matter of public record for all parties involved and, again, it was significantly covered in the press.”
Meanwhile, the city’s attorney, Stephanie Campbell from Bond, Schoenick and King, argued that the city did initiate court action on time because they filed within 30 days of the annexation disagreement being sent to and filed by the county clerk. For the city, that is when the 30-day window began. As a result, that is something the court will have to consider as part of its upcoming ruling on the annexation.
But beyond the argument of whether or not the city filed on time, Zaffram also argued the property isn’t eligible for annexation because it doesn’t actual sit adjacent to the city line, which is required under state law. She said the center of Tiffany Avenue is the official border between the city and the town, making the east side of the road owned by the Town of Ellicott.
“The borderline is the center line of the road,” Zaffram explained. “You have a portion of the road that happens to be adjacent to the egress point of the BPU substation parcel, and then the remainder of that parcel is also included in the proposed area. Pursuant to whether or not a property is adjoining, that intervening highway prevents the contiguity, or the adjoining nature of the properties, that is a threshold requirement for annexation under [state law].”
And Zaffram also argued that the city doesn’t even own some of the property it is seeking to annex, but instead leases it from National Grid.
“My opponent is focused on this being such an important crucial part of the city’s infrastructure, and they want to maintain control and investment in the city. But there is a problem because the interconnection point to the grid, which is a critical piece of this property, is not owned by the city. If you had full, complete control perhaps that would be a distinguishing factor. You don’t have that here. That interconnection point, which is the most critical point of the property, isn’t even owned by them,” Zaffram explained.
Campbell, meanwhile, maintained that the issue of public safety was the key point in determining if the property is eligible for annexation.
“The interests of the property are to be located within the municipality that is most capable of providing it within municipal services,” Campbell said in her closing statement. “That is what the referees failed to consider. We would ask that you reject the report and recommendations of the referees and find that the proposed annexation is in the overall public interest.”
Anyone wishing to watch the full 25 minutes of arguments before the court can do so at the Four Department’s archive page of its website. The video should be posted by Monday, April 15.
The BPU has committed $405,000 in legal fees toward the case. According to the Post-Journal, the sides opposing it have paid a combined $320,000
A decision on the annexation from the Appellate division could come within a month.