Each morning before work, David Howard is greeted by his Goodyear Avenue neighbors: a group of skunks and woodchucks.
On nearby Coit Street, Clara has grown accustomed to living with her housemate: another woodchuck.
“Once in a while, I hear him trying to chip at the wood. Then I pound my foot, and he’s quiet for at least two hours or he runs away,” said Clara, who asked that her last name be withheld.
The city in recent years has embarked on an ambitious campaign to tear down vacant and abandoned houses that have become fire and safety hazards.
But left behind are thousands of empty lots. And after a wet May, these lots have become unkempt fields of tall grass and weeds. In other words, perfect homes for skunks, woodchucks, rats and other rodents.
Their human neighbors are not pleased.
“The woodchucks will be on their hind legs, just looking around,” Howard, 54, said as he explained his daily morning observations. “The skunks will be fighting them, spraying around.”
City Hall owns approximately 10,000 empty lots in Buffalo and, like any property owner, is responsible for mowing and maintaining the grass. But because of the wet spring, the city is about two weeks behind in cutting the grass, according to spokesman Michael DeGeorge.
“These are not lots that the city wants,” DeGeorge said. “These are lots that people lost their homes, and these lots fall to the city.”
Homeowners elsewhere might have some sympathy for city crews tasked with cutting and recutting grass on all those lots, but for the residents next to the lots where the grass is now near 3 feet high, that sympathy runs thin. Especially when they get citations for their own tall grass, and then look next door and see the grass on the city-owned lots is even higher.
Howard complains about the woodchucks that migrated from the empty lots near his house and into his yard, where they dug three holes that lead into his basement. One hole is 2 feet wide. He also recalled one night last summer, when a skunk strolled over and sprayed his 23-year-old son while he was standing in the driveway.
On many summer nights, Goodyear Avenue smells like skunk spray, Howard said.
Residents call the Fillmore Common Council office about five times a week regarding skunks, woodchucks and rats, said Aniela Baj, the district’s legislative assistant.
“There’s not much that we can do besides having the grass cut,” Baj said.
But Common Council members don’t cut the grass. That’s the job of city crews, and they have been busy. They recently finished mowing all of the vacant lots in the University and Ellicott districts, DeGeorge said.
Grass cutting in the Fillmore District is set to start this week.
But many residents on the East Side complain that the city doesn’t maintain the lots year-round, so the animals emerge frequently.
Clara, who lives on Coit Street, has lived next to an empty city-owned lot for 15 years.
“When they tear down houses, this is what’s left – the tall grass, and heaven knows what’s in the grass,” she said.
In April of last year, a woodchuck moved from the lot next to her house into her garage. Clara said she called the city’s 311 line for neighborhood help three times last year regarding her unwanted housemate.
“That 311 thing, that’s a joke,” Clara said of the non-emergency complaint line. “I have called about woodchucks. Last year I called, I says, ‘I have a problem with woodchucks.’ She says, ‘Oh, OK, we’ll come down and put traps.’ I’m still waiting for them to put the traps down.”
What frustrates many residents is that the city takes action against them when their grass is too tall, even though city-owned vacant lots next door to their homes have grass even higher.
Mayor Byron W. Brown has been aggressive about addressing quality-of-life issues in the city, including ticketing property owners whose grass has not been cut.
But residents say they’ve been ticketed for having gardens or slightly overgrown grass, which doesn’t compare to the city-owned unkempt fields that can reach 3 feet high.
Last spring, the city issued Margaretta Porter, 73, a warning that she would be fined $75 if she didn’t cut the grass in her backyard garden. But the lot adjacent to hers on Goodyear Avenue, which is city-owned and vacant, has grass nearly 3 feet high.
“They don’t cut it the way they’re supposed to – it’s like a rushed job,” Porter said of the city’s maintenance of vacant lots on Goodyear Avenue. “But [city officials] go in the backyard and charge you $75.”
In the last two years, Baj said she and other Fillmore District office aides have helped 10 or more residents fight tickets for tall grass.
“It is unfair,” she said, to issue high-grass tickets to property owners when city-owned lots next to theirs are overgrown.
Into July of last year, the city had issued about 800 tickets to property owners for high grass. DeGeorge did not provide updated numbers for this year.
Several East Side residents say the vacant lots with unkempt lawns make their neighborhoods look “sloppy” and are an “eyesore.”
“After a while, you kind of just put blinders on and see what you need to see,” Clara said. “The people who cut the grass could do a lot better and more often.”
Latasha Nowlin last week walked her 3-year-old daughter home from the park on Paderewski Drive, maneuvering the stroller down the street. From just a short distance away, it looked as though they were walking through a field. The street itself was totally obscured by the thigh-high grass.
Markel Green, 17, often walks through the vacant lots on the East Side as shortcuts to stores and friends’ houses.
“I’m 6’3”, and the grass is up to my knees,” Green said. “That’s how all the grass is around here. They usually don’t cut them here often.”
Baj believes the city does the best it can to maintain its approximately 10,000 vacant lots, noting it’s “hard to sometimes keep up.”