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Amherst to consider sidewalk snowplowing ; Proposal pits safety against another tax

The frustrating question of how to handle sidewalk clearing enforcement efforts has been a touchy one for years.

It's come up as a public safety issue, with snowstorm-related pedestrian deaths as recent as this month. It's come up as a quality-of-life issue, with village residents demanding the continuation of sidewalk snow-clearing services.

And now it's coming up -- again -- as a taxing issue in Amherst.

The town is the largest community in the area to seriously consider creating sidewalk snowplowing districts for residents who live along major town roadways. Under the proposal, such homeowners would be charged $50 or more annually to have the town plow their sidewalks whenever a certain amount of snow falls.

"This is a pretty serious public safety issue. We can't just turn a blind eye to it," said Council Member Guy Marlette, who is introducing a resolution Monday to create "Sidewalk Snow Relief Districts" by June.

Sidewalk snowplowing has a history of being a government-provided service on a smaller scale in villages such as Williamsville, Orchard Park, Kenmore and East Aurora. It was often mentioned by opponents of village dissolution as a service they did not want to lose. But at the town level, government-sponsored sidewalk clearing is far more complicated.

Town officials have to address questions of fairness, liability and the district boundaries. There's also the ever-unpopular concept of creating a new layer of taxation.

But some residents, particularly seniors, say they welcome any plan to relieve them of the onerous responsibility of clearing their sidewalks for a minimal annual cost.

"Thank God," said Amherst resident Louise A. Dobson, 80, who has lived in her Maple Road ranch home for 12 years. Her sidewalk sits less than a foot from the curb.

She said she's sick of having snowplows dump roadway debris and ice on her sidewalk every winter. If the plows aren't knocking the glasses off her neighbor's face, she says, they're recoating her cleared sidewalk like clockwork and getting her into hot water with the town's building enforcement officers.

"The one day the man gave me a summons -- I ripped it up and threw it at him," she said.

Tragedy has forced local municipalities to deal with unpassable sidewalks. Just this month, a Cheektowaga man was killed while walking along the center of Transit Road in West Seneca. In 2001, three teenagers were killed on Niagara Falls Boulevard in Amherst when they were hit by a car while walking in the street.

Since then, Amherst has stepped up efforts to enforce sidewalk-clearing laws.

Mary Ann Campo, 81, said she's received several town violations over the past few years because the west side of her yard has a sidewalk that runs along Eggert Road for about 325 feet.

"The minute October/November comes, I nearly have a heart attack," she said. "I really do, because of this sidewalk. It's not that I don't want it done; it's hard to get done."

Marlette's snowplowing district proposal would not tax all residents, only those who live in parts of town where uncleared sidewalk complaints are heaviest. He recommends creating five districts, initially, that would cover certain stretches of Kenmore Avenue, Niagara Falls Boulevard, Eggert Road, Maple Road, Harlem Road and Sheridan Drive.

Rabbi Moshe Taub presides at Young Israel of Greater Buffalo synagogue on Maple Road, one of six Orthodox synagogues in Amherst. It attracts thousands of Jewish tourists each year, many of whom visit Western New York to see Niagara Falls.

Since Orthodox and traditional Jews come to synagogue on foot during the Sabbath, which falls on Saturday, as well as on Jewish holidays, having passable sidewalks within a few miles of the building is an ongoing issue in the winter.

"Our comfort is not the problem," Taub said. "It's safety that we're concerned about."

Along some parts of Sheridan Drive, sidewalks run along the rear of homeowner properties -- sometimes behind fenced-in backyards. In the past, the Town Board has approved waivers for homeowners in such situations.

But in recent years, the board has been extremely reluctant to approve such exceptions because it essentially transfers liability to the town.

Marlette's resolution would not absolve individual homeowners of personal liability for sidewalk mishaps.

Sandra Holland, 68, is one of about 16 property owners on Thamesford Lane and Thamesford Court whose backyards abut Sheridan Drive. Until they all received warnings from the town's Building Department two weeks ago, she said, no one on her side of the street realized they were responsible for clearing the rear sidewalk.

For Holland, it would mean walking out the front of her house to the end of her street, up a side street and over several unplowed sidewalks along Sheridan Drive to get to her stretch of rear sidewalk in the middle of the block. "I cannot do that, or climb over other people's snow piles," she said.

She and many of her neighbors will be at Monday's board meeting to plead their case. They've banded together to hire a contractor to care for their rear sidewalk in the meantime.

Council Member Steven Sanders said he hopes to lower their costs.

"If we do this as snowplow districts, we can do this a lot cheaper than any one individual can do this for themselves," he said. "Ideally, everybody would take care of their own responsibilities, but in reality, many people don't."

e-mail: stan@buffnews.com

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