Persistent complaints and bad publicity regarding the failure of property owners to comply with sidewalk snow-clearing laws have prompted a couple of communities to pursue tougher penalties.
Members of the Amherst Town Board are proposing a series of new enforcement measures that leaders say may be a model for other towns to follow. In the Village of East Aurora, meanwhile, Mayor Allan Kasprzak said this month that he wants chronic offenders of sidewalk snow-clearing laws to be hit with fines, and possibly photographic proof of the threat to public safety.
He expressed his frustration that even though the village provides sidewalk snowplowing services to its residents, about half the residents aren’t bothering to pick up a shovel to further clear or maintain the walking paths.
“If you have the money to have your driveway plowed out because you have to go to work, then consider the people who don’t, who have to walk,” Kasprzak said. “Just make a path for people. That’s all we’re asking.”
Amherst Council Member Guy Marlette said he’s tired of hearing people complain about uncleared sidewalks only to have town officials respond that they don’t have the manpower to do more proactive enforcement.
“The same song could go on and on,” he said, adding, “When we have a lack of manpower, we have to be able to increase manpower without increasing costs to the town.”
Both he and Council Member Mark Manna are introducing two separate, but related, resolutions Tuesday that they say will make a difference and provide a model for other communities struggling with the same issue.
Among the ideas they propose:
• To redirect some money from an existing property maintenance account and working collaboratively with union leaders to hire seasonal/retired and part-time code enforcement officers to aggressively hunt for violators and gain compliance. That money could be replenished through fine collection.
• To inspect and conduct “mini blitzes” along major commercial roadways in town after major snowstorms and increase the fines for noncompliant commercial properties.
• To hire private contractors to clear the sidewalks of persistently negligent property owners and place the cost of the snow removal on the property owner’s tax bill.
• To create a link on the town’s website to make it easier for residents to alert code enforcement officers of unshoveled sidewalks from Nov. 1 to April 1 of each year.
“We want to give the public every opportunity to contact us and let us know where there’s an issue,” Manna said. “The best code enforcement is a resident enforcing the codes in their own neighborhoods.”
Complaints in East Aurora had village officials revisiting the topic at a recent board meeting, with Kasprzak subsequently saying the village needed to again institute fines that have not been doled out over the last two years.
Amherst Building Commissioner Thomas Ketchum said that after the last snowstorm and news stories and complaints that followed regarding uncleared sidewalks, he had a team of four inspecting all the commercial properties on Sheridan Drive between Niagara Falls Boulevard and the Youngmann Highway.
More than 80 property owners were given notices that they were out of compliance with the law. “We got the majority of them to comply,” he said.
More random blitzes of other areas will occur in the future, he added.
The 2001 Amherst tragedy that left three teens dead because of impassible sidewalks has left the town struggling to develop a better sidewalk clearing system ever since. But results have been inconsistent.
Marlette said part of the problem is that the town issues informal notices, then formal citations, then fines and court appearance tickets to address sidewalk offenders. In difficult cases, the matters go to court but rarely amount to serious penalties at the end of a long and unproductive process.
Having enough enforcement manpower is more of an issue than fines, he said. In 2011, Marlette submitted a resolution stiffening the fines on commercial properties and businesses, but that has failed to make a real difference, he said.
Last year, Amherst created its first “sidewalk snow relief district,” in which the town provides some sidewalk snowplowing for property owners along parts of Maple Road and Niagara Falls Boulevard, where sidewalks are notoriously impassable because of street plow debris.
Marlette said Highway Department efforts to keep these sidewalks plowed after the last snowstorm were woefully inadequate and must be improved.
Both Marlette and Manna said they would like their latest ideas to be considered as part of a broader “enforcement action plan” for the town. Marlette added that if this effort is successful and cost efficient, it could be a guide for other communities.
“We share many roadways with many municipalities,” he said. “We share the same issues. I think it’s just an awesome idea. If other municipalities look at this the same way ... it’s a win-win for everybody.”