When Butterwood Desserts in Williamsville abruptly closed shop at the end of June, local residents were shocked. How could the charming and well-known bakery operation, in business since 2003, suddenly go under?
The answer lies, in part, in a renewed effort by the village to bring commercial buildings into compliance with fire safety requirements after nearly a decade of uneven and inconsistent fire code enforcement that violated state law and put the public at risk. "We definitely had a backlog," said Mayor Brian Kulpa.
Village fire inspector Tony Schueckler, a former fire chief and 25-year inspector with the Town of Amherst, said mandated yearly inspections of public assembly buildings such as restaurants and theaters were being done only every two or three years.
And a systematic sweep of Williamsville's other general businesses, which should be inspected every three years, found they hadn't been inspected in at least the past eight, he said.
In addition, records regarding past inspections were poorly kept.
Butterwood Desserts on Main Street is one example. Though the bakery and restaurant was apparently inspected in 2008, village officials have no idea what the inspection findings were and would have to search through microfilm to find out.
After Schueckler was hired by the village in March as a part-time code enforcement officer overseeing fire inspections, he started inspecting higher-risk village buildings and found that Butterwood had illegal second-floor seating.
Though it's apparently been this way since shortly after the restaurant opened in 2003, Schueckler said minor changes would need to be made to safely allow for any second-floor seating, and substantial renovations had to be made if the business owner intended to seat more than 50 patrons.
"At the time I inspected, it was exceeding 70," he said.
Aside from needing a second working exit and an installed sprinkler system for fire safety purposes, Schueckler said, the building would also require a variance to allow for additional parking.
"The upstairs was extremely important to my business model," said Butterwood owner and Williamsville resident Claire Bacon, who purchased the business from former owner Bill Panzica and his wife in 2009.
She used the second floor for both regular patron seating and for private parties that were booked in the building, which dates back to 1900.
"What was I supposed to do?" she said. "I was informed that half of my building, which I spent $250,000 redecorating, couldn't be used."
In 2004, Panzica sought permission from the village to set up second-floor seating, but later withdrew his application. Panzica said he used second-floor seating only for "overflow" seating, primarily on Friday and Saturday nights and never sat more than 50 patrons.
"The seating upstairs was a very small, insignificant part of a business," he said.
Schueckler said the paperwork filed with the village indicated that the second floor was supposed to be used for office space and cake displays only.
Though Panzica sold both the Williamsville and West Falls Butterwood locations to Bacon, he continued to own the buildings, which he leased to Bacon in 2009. He is now suing her in Village Court, stating that she never informed him of the fire code issues, broke her lease and damaged the property.
He also said he was distressed over what's happened to the Williamsville business, which he and his wife had built up from a humble basement operation years ago. "It's so disturbing," he said. "It breaks my heart, all the blood and sweat and tears I put into this building, for them to sneak out in the middle of the night."
Bacon and her lawyer, however, said Panzica was repeatedly informed of the building's fire code problems in writing, that she was extremely respectful of the property, and kept the exact same table set-up he had when he ran the business.
"I did not operate that upstairs any way other than how Mr. Panzica trained me to operate it," she said. "I've never not met my obligations to him."
She continues to operate the West Falls location and said she's working hard to make sure all her Northtowns customers are inconvenienced as little as possible, offering them price breaks and modest delivery charges.
How it is that Butterwood Desserts could have maintained second-floor seating for so many years without meeting fire code requirements until now remains a mystery. It also raises questions as to what other Williamsville business owners may soon face -- if they haven't already -- regarding fire code violations that may have gone unchecked in past years.
The lack of consistency in the village Building Department has plagued village officials for some time, particularly since 2007, when Williamsville opted to man its Building Department with a single, part-time code enforcement officer.
Over the past five years, the village has seen a revolving door of three different part-time officers who came and went. When the last part-time officer left in April of last year, the village had no enforcement officers in its Building Department for eight months.
During that time, then-Trustee Jeffrey Kingsley spearheaded efforts to merge the village Building Department with the Town of Amherst and have the town's inspectors take over all code enforcement.
When those negotiations fell through, the village decided to upgrade its own Building Department, hiring David Johnston as a full-time code enforcement officer in January and Schueckler as a part-time enforcement officer in March overseeing all fire inspections.
Schueckler said he's inspected all the public assembly venues and is now making his way through inspections of the general businesses in Williamsville. The village has also dramatically improved its record-keeping system, computerizing all records, he said.
"I know that I've done 129 fire inspections as of today," he said. He estimated he still has to inspect about half the village's general businesses but hopes to be caught up by the end of the year. Richard A. Rich, president of the Williamsville Business Association, said he hasn't yet heard complaints from any merchants.
"I do know that several months ago, we did send a notice out to let all of our members know it was coming," he said. "Sometimes being forewarned is being forearmed."
Efforts to maintain the village's Building Department continue to run into snags, however. Last month, Johnston decided to leave his position as a full-time village inspector. He will continue to serve in a part-time capacity until a full-time replacement is found.
In the meantime, Bacon said she's looking at the possibility of opening up a Butterwood Desserts location elsewhere in the Northtowns, and Panzica said he's looking for a new tenant to lease his Williamsville property at 5409 Main St.
Village Court is slated to hear the legal dispute between the two parties Sept. 9.