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City urged to remove Lafayette occupiers; Business activity disrupted, some say

Downtown property owners, businesses and city officials are warning that action may be taken against the protesters who broke off from Occupy Buffalo at Niagara Square and took over part of Lafayette Square.

Critics of the protesters complain that their presence in the heart of downtown Buffalo is disrupting business activity while damaging efforts to restore an image of safety and cleanliness to the area.

The property owners and businesses said they're getting fed up with a protest movement that has dragged on for months, with no clear goal or permits, while diminishing two of Buffalo's prominent urban parks.

"As a major taxpayer in Buffalo, I am bewildered by the tolerance for Occupy Buffalo," Stephen P. Fitzmaurice, chief operating officer of the New York-based firm that owns the One HSBC Center tower, wrote in an email to Buffalo Mayor Byron W. Brown, obtained by The Buffalo News.

"If these people want to apply for a permit to have a protest march, that's one thing, but this is an affront to all of us trying to conduct legitimate business."

And he said action is needed.

"Most other cities have grown tired of this eyesore and lack of respect for public and private property," he said, citing Zuccotti Park in Manhattan, the epicenter of the national movement. "They've done what's necessary to clear out the hordes."

Fitzmaurice's comments were echoed Wednesday by other property owners and executives on the board of Buffalo Place, the downtown business improvement district that includes Lafayette Square in its jurisdiction. The group, which says it may face liability if anyone is hurt on property it maintains, has reached out to both city officials and Buffalo police.

"There are application procedures for using that square, and they weren't followed," Keith Belanger, chairman of Buffalo Place and an executive at M&T Bank Corp., said at the group's meeting. "We put the city on notice that we're upset about this."

The city and Occupy Buffalo signed a formal agreement Dec. 9 that spells out the rights and requirements that will allow the group to remain in Niagara Square. It calls for the group to move -- but only temporarily -- to Lafayette Square only if Niagara Square is unavailable because of snow or other events.

However, a handful of protesters broke off from the larger group Sunday night, moving to Lafayette and setting up tents, a table and signs there.

Common Council Majority Leader Richard A. Fontana has called on Brown not to permit the demonstrators to stay in Lafayette Square after 10 p.m., which is prohibited under city law. The longer people are allowed to stay, Fontana said, the more they feel entitled to stay.

He said his position does not reflect his feelings on the group's message, and demonstrators are well within their rights to protest during the day.

Calling the expansion to Lafayette Square "just a bad move," Fontana said he believes members of the new splinter group want to get arrested. He also said he believes the Occupy movement's presence in Lafayette Square does hurt some small businesses in the area, which are not the group's target.

"As you know, those of us in the business improvement district pay additional taxes to enjoy a cleaner and safer environment. This is certainly not part of that plan," Fitzmaurice wrote.

"I urge you to consider what this is doing to our business community and take the necessary steps to restore these parks to their normal appearance and make them available to all!"

A city spokesman said Wednesday that if Lafayette Square remains occupied, "the city will deal with the situation at the appropriate time."

"There is an agreement in place between the city and Occupy to be in Niagara Square," mayoral spokesman Michael J. DeGeorge said. "Lafayette Square is to be used for severe weather conditions, with the city making the call per the agreement."

DeGeorge would not specify what the "appropriate time" is. But Chief Brian K. Patterson of the Buffalo Police Department's downtown district said "the mayor's office is fully aware" of the concerns, and "I expect there will be some changes shortly."

Meanwhile, the leaders of Occupy Buffalo itself sought to distance themselves from the splinter group, which calls itself Occupy Western New York.

"They acted against the will of the rest of the group. They did not use the process we use for decision-making and went off on their own," said spokesman John Washington.

And he acknowledged the risk that the actions of one group could impact the other. "The perception can be confusing, but actions speak louder than words," he said. "We'll have to work to separate ourselves."

The tension over what may be a splinter group threatens to derail what has otherwise been a peaceful and cooperative relationship between the Occupy Buffalo protesters and the city. That's in stark contrast to what has occurred in cities around the country, including Albany and Rochester.

City officials and police have allowed Occupy Buffalo to set up and maintain what has been termed a "tent city" on Niagara Square, even though the protesters remain on site overnight. In exchange, the group says it is policing itself, trying to maintain order, comply with all laws, and not disrupt traffic or other activities.

email: jepstein@buffnews.com and abesecker@buffnews.com