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Tales of sidewalk woes abound

In 2003, after years of complaints about deteriorating and dangerous sidewalks and not really doing anything about it, the Village of Lancaster sent out notices to property owners ordering them to make repairs.

"That turned out to be incredibly unpopular with residents," Mayor William Cansdale said with a rueful chuckle.

The village eventually relented but learned that when it comes to sidewalks, there are no easy answers.

"A lot of the aspects of the sidewalk program are a no-win situation for the town," said Amherst Building Commissioner Thomas Ketchum, whose department cites as many as 1,000 sidewalks per year as being unsafe and in need of repair.

Amherst is one of the area's more aggressive communities when it comes to problem sidewalks, although officials do not go looking for defects, instead relying on complaints from neighbors.

When a problem is found, Ketchum said, the town is obligated to make sure the defect is fixed or face the possibility of legal action if someone is hurt walking on it. Work crews go out to inspect the sidewalk and the ones next door on both sides. If inspectors find similar problems, they must inspect every property on intersecting streets "so we're not singling somebody out."

Property owners are then sent a letter telling them they have 60 days to make repairs or face the possibility of fines.

When sidewalks go bad, the culprit is generally the deep roots from trees planted decades ago on the town rights of way between the sidewalks and the street. The roots have pushed through the sidewalks in front of many of the houses, making them impassable.

In other words, a tree, planted by the town on town property, messes up a sidewalk, and the town does not have to make the repairs.

"Everybody's in a roar about that," said Debbie Speicher, who has lived on Willow Green Drive in Amherst for 16 years. "Why won't Amherst help us out if these are their trees that are causing our problem? We understand they're our sidewalks and we're responsible if someone trips and falls on them, [and] we have to keep them shoveled, but it's their tree so why can't they help us?"

Willow Green has not yet been cited, but Speicher knew it was coming. So she organized her neighbors and negotiated a better deal with a local contractor.

While the sidewalk is the property owner's responsibility, other towns have figured out an alternative to the strict "fix or fine" approach in Amherst.

In Cheektowaga, the town offers $40-per-slab grants to property owners who need to have the work done. With slabs costing $150 to $200 or more, that can be significant. Highway Superintendent Mark Wegner calls it a way to "give a little bit back to the taxpayers."

After ditching its more aggressive approach in 2003, the Village of Lancaster instead decided to issue a $500,000 bond to repair the sidewalks villagewide. That money was spent by 2007, and the Village Board decided to supplement the program with another $250,000 and worked to get state and federal grants.

"In our case, we think it's important that we take responsibility and go out there and get it done," Cansdale said.

Amherst's Ketchum said he knows residents find it unfair that they have to pay for a problem not of their doing. But placing the burden on every taxpayer doesn't seem fair. And if the town started fixing sidewalks today, how would that decision be received by residents who just paid to have it done themselves?

The words incredibly unpopular come to mind.


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