Putting together a new professional sports stadium is no small task. For Erie County and the Buffalo Bills, one of the next biggest hurdles is to pass through New York’s stringent environmental review process.
A full review under New York’s State Environmental Quality Review Act is required for the stadium project. The law applies when a state or local government agency takes action to approve, fund, or undertake a significant action. A full environmental impact statement is required for actions deemed to be significant.  The 240-acre, $1.4 billion stadium being constructed by the state-run Empire State Development Agency is undoubtedly a significant state action.
Developing an environmental impact study is a lengthy process. The study must include a full description of the action, the environmental setting, an analysis of all environmental impacts and ways to limit those impacts, and alternatives to the proposed action. Preparing this statement is a several-step process that requires input and oversight from multiple state agencies. Opportunities for public comments are also required for each step in the State Environmental Quality Review (“SEQR”) process, and public hearings are encouraged.  The process culminates in a written finding by the leading state agency that all SEQR requirements have been addressed, and environmental impacts will be limited to the fullest extent possible.
The environmental review process creates ample opportunity for delay. The environmental impact study requires extensive interagency collaboration prone to bureaucratic inefficiency. Time must be allotted for public comment and responding to those comments. The findings of the environmental impact study may also be challenged in court, though they are not often overturned. Each of these twists presents an opportunity for immeasurable delay.
A delay in the Bills stadium development because of SEQR would not be unprecedented. The New York Islanders dealt with a minor SEQR delay while constructing their new arena in Belmont Park. The Islanders arena project began in 2012 with an announcement that the team was moving, and the Belmont site was chosen in 2016. The project cost $1.1 billion and was part of a large push for redevelopment in the Belmont area.  The arena finally opened in 2021.
The SEQR process was part of the reason the arena took so long to open. Utilizing the open comment process, opponents of the arena project were able to express concerns over a lack of community input. In 2019, the Village of Floral Park (a village neighboring Belmont) brought suit against the Empire State Development Corporation seeking to overturn its SEQR determination and stop construction. The village was concerned about the findings from a traffic study and requested a new review before construction continued. The case was dismissed at the trial level, avoiding any significant delay. However, both of these incidents created bad press for the projects, added additional costs, and presented an opportunity for a delay.
Concerns with the stadium project in Buffalo are similar to those from the Belmont arena. The Bills have yet to agree to a community benefits agreement for their new stadium. The community benefits agreement was part of the stadium memorandum of understanding executed with the public sector parties. However, the agreement was only to negotiate those terms later.  To date, there is no community benefits agreement signed between the Bills and Erie County. Further, the infrastructure leading into Orchard Park is severely limited and should be addressed before investing in a new state-of-the-art stadium. Local leaders have expressed their concerns about these outstanding issues and may seek to force the issue as part of the SEQR process. An article has confirmed that complaints were voiced in the first open comment process regarding sidewalks, funding, and the exclusion of the Seneca Nation.
Although the first round of comments has ended, the public comment process is not over. The Bills have put up a webpage for submitting comments in future rounds of review.
The environmental review process is a complicated procedure that must be managed professionally. The SEQR system creates opportunities for severe delays and costly lawsuits. The Bills stadium is no exception, and the process should be watched closely by the community.
 Friends of P.S. 163, Inc. v. Jewish Home Lifecare, Manhattan, 416, 68 N.Y.S.3d 382, 425-26 (2017).
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