The Town of Amherst has taken its first big step toward having the town plow homeowner and commercial sidewalks that are notoriously difficult to keep open in winter because street debris is repeatedly dumped on them by passing plow trucks along major roads.
The board unanimously agreed Monday to have the town create a local law and receive contractor bids this summer for new "sidewalk snow relief districts."
The town is the largest community in the area to approve such a resolution even though the problem of street plows making some sidewalks impassible is fairly common. Under the proposal, certain homeowners would be charged $50 or more annually to have the town plow their sidewalks whenever a certain amount of snow falls.
"At the end of the day, this is certainly a safety issue," said Council Member Guy Marlette. "Some would say it is not a perfect solution, but it's a solution going forward that we can provide."
The question of sidewalk snowplowing districts has come up in Amherst repeatedly over the years, especially after three teenagers were struck and killed on Niagara Falls Boulevard in 2001 while walking in the street because sidewalks were impassable.
Amherst also has some town neighborhoods where the sidewalks run along the rear of properties, making access for homeowners extraordinarily difficult.
In the past, the Town Board has approved waivers for homeowners in such situations, but the board has become increasingly reluctant because the financial burden of plowing those sidewalks gets borne by all town taxpayers. While sidewalk clearing has a history of being a government-provided service in villages such as Williamsville, Orchard Park, Kenmore and East Aurora, that's not the case at the town level because the idea of a townwide sidewalk snowplowing tax is objectionable to many.
Marlette's snowplowing district proposal would not tax all residents, only those 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.
According to the resolution approved by the board, targeted property owners in these snowplow districts would pay varying amounts, depending on the length of their property along the arterial roadways: $50 a year for properties up to 150 feet long, $100 for properties 151 to 300 feet and $100 plus $25 per 50-foot increment for properties exceeding 300 feet.
The amounts are based on the pilot sidewalk snowplowing study the town conducted last year, Marlette said, as well as a comparison with the sidewalk snowplowing program administered in the City of Rochester.
The cost figures are preliminary, but Marlette said he hopes they will be on target after contractor proposals are received this summer.
Council Member Steven Sanders has acknowledged that some conscientious homeowners clear their own sidewalks and remain opposed to being forced to pay a new town fee because of other homeowners' negligence.
But there isn't a better fix out there, he said.
"This is a very complicated and difficult issue," he said, "and I think this is a very good solution for it."
No one from the public raised objections to the resolution at Monday's meeting. Instead, residents of Thamesford Lane and Thamesford Court, whose backyards face sidewalk-lined Sheridan Drive, supported the resolution.
"This is probably a step forward, quite honestly," said resident Sandra Holland.
Neighbor Linda Thuman said she went door to door to organize efforts, get bids from prospective contractors and collect money to pay one when they were abruptly told recently that they had to plow their rear sidewalks or face violations.
Bids came in as high as $3,800 for a stretch of about 16 homes, she said.
Board members said they hope the new plan will provide that same service at a much lower cost to residents.
"I think it's the most realistic way to deal with this issue," said Council Member Mark Manna, "and to relieve homeowners of what is often an impossible task."
Supervisor Barry Weinstein cautioned that Monday's resolution only starts the process of creating sidewalk snowplowing districts.
"It is not a commitment yet," he said. "The goal is to get contractors to do this work and get the best possible price."