With the owners' permission, they turned the 50-to-60-foot-wide swath of scrub land behind their homes into an extension of their backyards, keeping it mowed and planting gardens and building sheds on it for 30 years.
When flooding created a drainage ditch, they made sure it was kept free of debris.
But next year, about 15 South Cheektowaga homeowners may look out their back windows and see the land and ditch they cared for all those years behind a 6-foot-high chain-link fence.
Some fear that one day, they might even lose their homes.
Residents of Suzette Drive, a little street off French Road, are locked in a bitter standoff with a neighbor, Buffalo Airfield, a little airport on the Cheektowaga-West Seneca border that handles single-engine and light twin-engine aircraft.
The neighbors worry that as the airfield's role as a "reliever" strip for Buffalo Niagara International Airport increases, noise levels and crash risks will rise sharply.
They also fear airport growth may eventually cost them their homes through eminent domain proceedings.
According to a Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority report, there isn't enough room to extend the Buffalo Airfield runway to handle aircraft larger than it does now.
But to satisfy Federal Aviation Administration funding requirements, authorities say safety and security demand perimeter fencing and obstruction-free zones are needed at the ends of the runway.
It is those pursuits that have put the little airport in conflict with its neighbors and Cheektowaga officials for the past few years.
When the airport tried to buy air space easements above homes to trim trees, the homeowners saw it as a potential first step toward eventual eminent-domain condemnation of their properties. Trim the trees, but forget any easements, they said.
And when the airport asked the town for a variance to erect an 8-foot-high perimeter fence -- chain link with barbed wire at the top -- 10 feet from the neighbors' yards to keep out deer and trespassers, the town said it wanted the fence moved back at least 50 feet from the rear property lines on Suzette so it wouldn't interfere with the drainage ditch.
Calling the town's plan too expensive, airport officials recently announced they would build a fence that doesn't require special permission to build -- 6 feet high, 1 foot from the property line, and no barbed wire.
The town and the neighbors responded with threats of lawsuits.
Why not move the Suzette section of the fence back and let the neighbors continue to use land that airport owners have encouraged them to for decades?
"They've never been willing to compromise," said Dean Drew, attorney for the airport. "When they threaten you with lawsuits, why would you do more than you have to?"
The neighbors scoff at airport officials insisting that expansion isn't their long-range goal, noting their street and a plaza on nearby Borden Road aren't even shown on the airport's master plan.
They see a 6-foot-high fence about 50 feet from their kitchen windows as a "spite fence" to punish them for their resistance. "They claim it's to keep out deer, but everybody knows a 6-footer isn't going to stop big dogs, much less deer, and the deer don't come from this side of the airfield anyway," said Suzette resident Douglas R. Childs.
"We wouldn't care what they put up on the other side of the drainage ditch," Childs continued. "At least it wouldn't feel like a prison when you look out the back window."
Neighbors wonder why -- if expansion isn't in the cards -- the airport doesn't just sell the strip of land to them and use the money toward the cost of fencing the 90-acre airport.
"We're like anyone else; we've got an investment in our homes and don't want to lose it," Childs said. Added Susan Osika, who has lived on the street since the 1960s, "It's expansion we're concerned about. I'm too old to go looking for another house."