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Residents want city to make the cut Overgrown vacant lots on East Side challenge crews, rile neighbors

Letitia McCrayer doesn't let her young children play outside.

It's no wonder. The grass on either side of her family's Koons Avenue home has grown higher than her 3-year-old son is tall.

"You don't know who is hiding in it," said McCrayer's fiance, Kennedy Coleman. "There are possums and rats."

"Anybody or anything -- needles, weapons -- can hide in it," Coleman added.

It's a scene repeated on many East Side streets.

Under pressure to deal with the proliferation of dilapidated, vacant houses scarring city neighborhoods, Buffalo has been on a demolition spree, knocking down as many as 500 to 700 houses annually in recent years. The spree has left thousands of vacant lots -- many owned by the city, the rest abandoned by their private owners.

That means a lot of grass to cut.

The city's Public Works Department began mowing the 10,000 city-owned lots April 30, and city officials say the first round of cutting should be completed by the end of next week.

But as of Wednesday, some 1,700 city-owned properties still hadn't heard the buzzing of a mower this spring. Lawns are overflowing. Most are in the city's Fillmore District, which has seen more demolition than any other part of the city.

What's more, some previously mowed lots in other parts of the city are already overdue for another mowing.

That's no surprise, according to landscaping experts. With the unseasonably warm temperatures this spring, grass-cutting season started in March this year. By waiting until now to do a first cutting, the grass "would be completely out of control," said Paul Fletcher of Fletcher & Son Landscaping, of Grand Island, who does work in Buffalo. Grass should be cut every two weeks to keep it under control, he said.

Comparing vacant lots to the backyards of occupied homes "is not comparing apples and apples," said Steven Stempniak, who heads the city's Department of Public Works, Parks and Streets.

"We started [cutting] April 30. It's a good time to get in," Stempniak said. "A lot of lots were spongy before that. Too soft for our equipment. We had a threat of a [snow] storm before April."

McCrayer and Coleman wish the city's mowing season had started earlier.

McCrayer recently called City Hall to complain about the tall grass on neighboring lots, which are a mixture of city-owned and privately owned properties. As of Wednesday, the grass remained uncut.

"This is typical," McCrayer said. The neighboring houses were demolished before her family moved to Koons Avenue three years ago, she said. During those three years, the city came by maybe two or three times -- usually only after McCrayer called to complain -- to cut the grass, Coleman said.

It's a similar story on Playter Street, where Jennifer Jackson has lived for the past three years.

"I want to get the hell out of here," said Jackson, a substitute teacher. "I can't let my son run around in this. It's not safe."

The house next to hers was demolished, as were two more next to that one. That leaves three grassy, unkempt lots next to her home.

Another Playter resident said the grass was high when he moved in last August, and wasn't cut before winter. Now that it's spring, the grass is high again, and has yet to be cut, he said.

The Buffalo News heard similar stories on other nearby streets off Sycamore, Walden and Broadway, where grass was sometimes two to three feet high: Rommel. Lathrop. Miller. Person. Schlenker. Sobieski. Titus. Kiefer. Roetzer.

Stepniak said the city has more vacant lots than ever to mow, and city crews are working faster than ever to cut the grass. The 10,000 lots are being mowed in a four-week cycle, compared with the six weeks last year, he said. As of Wednesday, he said, 8,300 properties had been mowed.

Once the first cutting cycle is complete at the end of next week, the city will repeat the cycle. "We are cutting systematically throughout the city," he said. "We are getting through quicker than ever before."

In the first round of cutting, only city-owned properties are being mowed, Stempniak said.

In the second round, after June 1, the city also will cut down tall grass on privately owned vacant lots, then bill the property owners. Typically, he said, once the city sends bills, the private owners starts cutting their own lots.

Stempniak said city crews are working six days a week to get the lots mowed. In addition, he said, the city is purchasing $100,000 in new equipment designed to make the city operation even more efficient. The equipment should be available July 1.

"We are focusing on getting better," he said. "We work with [the city department handling] demolitions, and we anticipated there would be more to cut."

Some city residents, in fact, took note of the city's expedited mowing schedule.

"The city was by here last week," said Nathaniel Moye, of Fox Street, off Sycamore, a well-kept neighborhood with a few vacant lots.

"[The city has] been doing a good job, better than last year," Moye said.

Others who recently saw city mowers on their streets were less pleased.

"The city came by Saturday," said Pleas Sterks of Wende, off East Ferry Street. "They did a bad job."

The grass was very high, and long grass clippings were left on the mowed lawns and on the sidewalk, Sterks said. With the hot weather this week, the clippings dried out, creating what Wende Street residents fear is a fire hazard.

"It shows you how much respect they have for our neighborhood," Sterks said. "We don't think they care about our neighborhood."

Others who hadn't yet seen any mowing crews were even less happy.

Some of them echoed the concerns expressed by McCrayer and Coleman about crime-related issues associated with the overgrown grass on vacant lots.

Coleman said there have been several instances when police chased people across the overgrown lots next to his house right through to an overgrown vacant lot on the next street over.

Between the vacant lots and vacant houses, he said, it's possible to pass through five streets.

The situation would be less worrisome, he said, if the city would regularly cut the high grass, and remove the bushes and broken trees on these properties.

But after living in the Koons Avenue house for three years, Coleman and McCrayer aren't optimistic that the situation will improve.

They are planning to move, Coleman said, to a home off Eggert Road, near the Cheektowaga border, where he and his fiance hope their children will be able to safely go outside to play.