In the Village of Lancaster, a battle is under way over what is known by some as the Erie Street Bridge, just east of Court Street.
But to Town of Lancaster officials, this span over Spring Creek in an industrial section of the village is known as the Erie Street Culvert.
The flap, which is causing commotion in official circles on either side of Broadway, boils down to which government is responsible for fixing or rebuilding the span. Neither the town nor the village claim that responsibility.
Town officials believe it is a culvert and therefore is the village’s responsibility. However, village officials say it fits the description of a bridge and is the town’s problem.
And both village and town officials deny ever doing any work on this particular Erie Street span.
The issue is one that is starting to crop up in many area villages that are homes to bridges and culverts. And there’s a growing debate over who is responsible for repairs, rebuilding and maintenance – especially in a hardscrabble economic environment.
Defining bridges and culverts often boils down to length and width.
“It could be a statewide issue,” said East Aurora Mayor Allan Kasprzak, noting that his village and the Town of Aurora have been in ongoing talks since 2011 about how to handle the deteriorating Brooklea Drive bridge over Tannery Brook. “It could affect every village and town.”
Kasprzak said that if the East Aurora case goes to court - which neither side wants - it could have statewide implications.
“It’s something that no one has challenged throughout the state,” he said.
The Lancaster brouhaha first began in May, when village Mayor Paul M. Maute sent a letter to the town about the problem, after a sizable hole through the top of the span’s concrete deck was discovered on April 30 by police. The affected area is in the westbound travel lane of Erie Street.
The trouble spot is covered with heavy steel plates and motorists have to go around it. It has reduced traffic to one lane on the bridge since spring.
Informal estimates range from $35,000 for emergency repairs to $200,000 to rebuild it – before the construction season winds down and winter settles in.
“Since this hole in the structure places the public at risk, it should be repaired as soon as possible. Should repairs be delayed, the defect will continue to deteriorate, making future repairs more extensive, and hence, more costly,” said a May 14 letter from Donald Gallo, consulting engineer to the village.
Village officials were angered when the town and Supervisor Dino Fudoli never responded to initial correspondence in May. Since then, the Village Board has met behind closed doors on the issue, and referred it to outside legal counsel Paul Weiss, who said he has thoroughly researched the issue, prepared a presentation, and says he is ready to push the village’s argument.
The two sides were planning to meet in a village-initiated work session at 5:30 p.m. today in the Village Municipal Center at Broadway and Central avenues. But Fudoli is angry the village turned it into an open meeting. As a result, the supervisor called Maute on Sunday to say town leaders would not attend the meeting.
And on Tuesday, Fudoli had harsh words for village officials – particularly Weiss.
“The village lied to us. We wanted a confidential meeting with the attorneys and then hash out an agreement,” Fudoli said. “This was to be a private meeting and the village made it a public spectacle. We didn’t want to be pigeonholed into something.”
Fudoli said the village is playing politics, and now risks losing all support from town officials on the issue.
“I think the village is broke and doesn’t have money to fix it,” Fudoli said. “But by all stretches of the imagination, it is a culvert.”
But the Village Board is moving forward with the meeting. Weiss said on Tuesday that he plans to do a presentation and hold a “very congenial” session. He also said the village hand-delivered an invitation to today’s meeting to town council members and the highway superintendent.
To this point, Village Board members have met in executive sessions on the issue but stated publicly that litigation is possible. Even Fudoli conceded last week during an interview that the issue “could become a legal matter.”
Fudoli was adamant that the town is right in calling the Erie Street span a culvert.
“Our side of it is we feel it’s a culvert. The law is clear that culverts should be paid for by villages,” he said. “Bridges have bridge identification numbers, and that culvert does not have a [number]. We’re not given authority to do anything to culverts because it’s not our property.”
Town Highway Superintendent Daniel J. Amatura said it’s a shame the span languishes in its current state of disrepair.
“Why inconvenience taxpayers with driving around the plates and pushing traffic to one side?” he said. “When I realized we had nothing to do with it, I let it go.”
Village Public Works Superintendent William G. Cansdale said, “We’re waiting for the elected officials and attorneys to sort out responsibility and what type of repair should be made. As soon as a decision is made, a repair could be made and the lane opened up very quickly.”
Meanwhile, Weiss, the attorney working for the village, said he plans to say during today’s special meeting why the village believes the Erie Street span in question is a bridge. He also says village officials are willing to listen to town officials defend the span as a culvert.
“Hopefully, we’ll come to an agreement,” Weiss said. “I don’t like wasting anybody’s time. I don’t like empty talk … There’s only so much time left in the construction season, and we want to get this handled before winter.”
The village also is aware of what went on in the Village of Depew last year, when culverts needed rebuilding at various locations, but were held up as the Town of Lancaster and Village of Depew differed on who was responsible for repairs to Grant Street and Olmstead Avenue spans in the village.
In the end, the town authorized $1.3 million in bonds for a capital improvement project tied to the reconstruction/construction and installation of several culverts and related expenses.