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Trampling on the rights of those who run

The people who regularly run at Chestnut Ridge Park are not what you would call normal.

This is a group that happily gathers every weekend, freakishly early and often in hellish weather conditions, to voluntarily run on hills that might have given Sir Edmund Hillary second thoughts.

But just because they're nuts doesn't mean they're crazy.

The Ridge Runners, among the most loyal users and keepers of the park for decades, say their rights as taxpayers are being trampled in the name of a more businesslike approach to county government. It's an increasingly common refrain, heard most recently by arts groups that saw their funding cut by Erie County Executive Chris Collins.

The Ridge dispute is also about money, but for runners the issue is more about the county recognizing that it is alienating the very taxpayers that it is supposed to be trying to serve.

For years, runners had free rein of the casino at the park. It became their gathering place before and after runs, a place to stretch and greet old friends. They generally arrived -- and, in many cases, departed -- before the rest of us would even think of getting out of bed.

(In the interest of full disclosure, my father is one of these people, as are other runners I know.)

But last year, after the casino had been refurbished and renovated, the county began hearing from more people who wanted to rent it during the summer for private parties and weddings. County officials were happy to oblige because more rentals meant more money; and the more money coming in, the less taxes would have to be raised or services cut.

Suddenly, the people who were accustomed to using this very definition of a public building found that they were getting locked out, thanks to private parties.

"You've got a lot of runners ticked off about it," said Chris Basty, 40, an East Aurora resident and Ridge Runner for the last 12 years who was nominated by the other runners to speak for them.

Basty sent Parks Commissioner James Hornung a letter outlining the runners' concerns. Hornung agreed that public access to the casino is more limited. In an interview last week, he explained: "During the summer, our rentals for weddings and so forth have gone right off the charts, which is a good thing for the county, and it's also good for the people who want to get married because it's an affordable site."

But he also said the county is trying to be accommodating, noting that the casino remains open to everyone on winter weekends from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m., the same hours as the park. And he said that since the runners complained, a side casino door is always open when the park is, even when the casino is rented, so that runners can use the restrooms before or after a run.

"Because the parks are better than they have been in years, the success is causing us to make these adjustments," Hornung said. "It isn't just the runners. It isn't just the cross-country skiers. It isn't just the snowshoers or sledders. We're trying to get them all to work together. Part of that is some have to make adjustments."

Maybe there is room for more. The county rents the building by the day and allows renters to get it a day in advance for preparation. The runners wonder why the building cannot be rented in shorter time increments.

Basty said the runners don't begrudge the county's bringing in some extra cash, but he wants officials to keep in mind whom they work for and to remember: "If it's run like a business, you should pay attention to the customers."

e-mail: bandriatch@buffnews.com

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