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Putting a lid on old law in Totemic Era

When garbage was kept in uncovered, filthy, metal cans, it made sense to keep them as far from sight as possible.

And that's exactly why the Town of Amherst has a law that residents must "keep all garbage and refuse containers or receptacles inside the dwelling or other building, garage or other enclosed structure -- or, if stored outside, behind the rear line of the principal building on the premises."

The days of the garbage can as rodent magnet in Amherst are gone, replaced by the Era of the Tote, in which the junk disappears beneath a lid covering a plastic marvel of engineering. But the law is still on the books.

It's time to add that to the trash.

That's also how Council Member Steven Sanders feels, which is why he suggested that the law be modified to let residents keep their two totes -- one for garbage, one for recyclables -- in the front or on the side of the house.

"Part of my reasoning is not only are a lot of people not complying with the law now, but now we've added a second tote," he said. "And very few people complain about it."

Why would they? The totes are the best thing to happen to Amherst in ages. They look good, they have all but solved a long-standing problem with rats and other critters, and rather than detracting from the look of a piece of property, they serve as a reminder to passers-by that Amherst cares about its residents' quality of life.

On top of that, forcing people to keep a wheeled garbage tote behind their house might constitute a hardship for some people. Making the elderly or disabled, for example, wheel their tote on the grass, around corners and out to the street seems like a worse option than allowing them to simply roll it up and down the driveway.

What about the garage? First of all, some people, even in Amherst, don't have them. And some of us who do, have garages attached to the house. On hot summer days, the stench of garbage a few feet away from a kitchen will affect even the heartiest appetite.

Council Member Guy Marlette said he can see the merit in some of these arguments, but he's still not in favor of getting rid of the law. He said he has heard from his share of residents complaining about the totes who say they don't want to have to look at them through their windows.

And while it's true that the totes work better in theory than the old garbage cans, some people disregard the law that says you can not overfill them and that the lid must be closed when the truck comes on trash day.

"Not all residents -- What's a nice way to say this? -- are orderly and neat," he said.

Marlette said he is willing to keep talking about this issue to try to come up with a better solution. Perhaps there is a way to keep the totes sheltered without taking them all the way to the rear of the property.

Like a lot of laws of this ilk in Amherst -- sidewalk shoveling, property upkeep -- enforcement is uneven at best. The town does not have the resources to hire people to drive around looking for lawbreakers. So it relies on the reports of aggrieved neighbors.

That's what happened recently when a woman called to complain that some of her neighbors had their totes stored illegally.

According to what she told the Town Board, a town representative did indeed come to the neighborhood and hand out a citation -- to her. Her garbage totes were being stored illegally on the side of the property.

Something tells me Steve Sanders and I are not the only ones who don't care for this law.