Of course officials in municipalities such as Williamsville should conduct the legally required fire code inspection of buildings used by the public. Of course businesses should comply with safety regulations or face consequences. Butterwood Desserts violated the rules, creating a potential danger to the public.
Simply put, the regulations need to be enforced consistently, not haphazardly, as was the case in the Village of Williamsville. The people who visit restaurants such as Butterwood Desserts have a right to know the establishments they support are complying with fire safety standards. But the businesses, themselves, have a right to know early on if they are violating fire codes. Butterwood closed at the end of June as the village began working to bring code enforcement up to date.
The restaurant's problem was that it had illegal second-floor seating -- and had had it since shortly after opening in 2003. Bringing the building up to code would require installing a second emergency exit and installing a sprinkler system. The building would also need a variance to allow for additional parking. Butterwood's owner, Claire Bacon, who leases the building, said her business plan requires use of the second floor. She ended up closing the popular Main Street location, although the West Falls location continues to operate.
In Williamsville, businesses that should have been inspected every three years went uninspected for eight years or more. Records on those that were inspected were poorly kept. So, while Butterwood Desserts supposedly was inspected in 2008, village officials don't know what the results were. Finding out would require trolling through microfilm files.
Williamsville's problems began in earnest four years ago, when it decided to staff its Building Department with a single part-time code enforcement officer. That's a long time for trouble to have been brewing. This year the village has since beefed up its code enforcement, with one full-time officer and one part-time officer, who are working to clear up the backlog.
This issue should also set off alarms in other municipalities, where inspection procedures may have become lax, putting the public and business owners at heightened risk.
Clearly, business owners should know the regulations before they set up shop. It's part of the due diligence required before undertaking any venture. Businesses that fall short of code compliance are taking chances with their customers' lives.
But municipalities have responsibilities, too. Reasonable safety codes are important to the public, but the definition of reasonable must include even and consistent enforcement. At that task, Williamsville had been failing badly.