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Friday, August 07, 2015

Governance of New York's Chautauqua roils property owners





Chautauqua, the lakeside retreat in western New York, attracts thousands of people each summer to its lectures, concerts, plays and art exhibitions. But controversy over the fate of Chautauqua Institution’s historic amphitheater has sparked protests about how the nonprofit is governed.
More than 400 property owners are expected to attend a meeting Saturday to press for more transparency from the 24-member board, which meets and votes behind closed doors.
The property owners’ revolt began as opposition to the institution’s plans to demolish its historic, open-air amphitheater and replace it with a replica that will be accessible to all. The 122-year-old building, which is used for religious services, lectures and concerts, is at the center of Chautauqua’s National Historic Landmark District. An organization called Save the Amp has gathered more than 2,400 signatures at its website.
Many Chautauquans agree the back porch behind the amphitheater and the backstage are in dire need of improvement and that the building should be more accessible. But the community is sharply divided over whether the amphitheater should be restored or replaced. George Murphy, a vice president and spokesman for Chautauqua, said a structural analysis of the amphitheater will be released next week. It was prepared by Old Structures, a New York company that specializes in assessing historic buildings.
Pittsburgh cardiologist William Follansbee, who has visited Chautauqua for 68 years and owns a home there, struck a chord when he sent a letter to the community’s residents July 18.
While Chautauquans believe in democracy and “the free and open exchange of ideas,” he wrote, the community is “run by a very small number of individuals, none of whom are elected, all of whom are appointed. And they are appointed by the same very small group of people.”
Four years ago, the cardiologist noted, Chautauqua “went to court to protect its exemption to New York State sunshine laws. ... Hearing descriptions of what happened in a meeting after the fact, sometimes long after the fact, is not the same as attending it.”
There are 1,100 property owners who live in homes or condominiums on Chautauqua’s grounds. Typically, properties range in value from $200,000 to $500,000.
A new bar was set when Joseph Kanfer of Cleveland recently built a modern, three-story house with an enclosed swimming pool on North Lake Drive for $7.3 million. His annual tax bill is about $155,000. Mr. Kanfer is CEO of GOJO Industries and a major donor to the amphitheater project. His home was designed by Martin J. Serena of Chicago, the architect overseeing the project.
Marylynne Pitz: mpitz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1648.


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