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Angered by tickets for tall grass, Buffalo residents point to decrepit, eyesore city lots

Clare Felsman lives on the far East Side, next door to a boarded-up, city-owned house, where kids hang out on the crumbling porch and harass her.

But she’s the one police ticketed.

Her crime? The tiger lilies planted around her tree apparently constituted “high grass.”

Her brazen gardening has gotten her two $150 tickets while the city has yet to tear down the decrepit eyesore it owns right next door.

“How is giving a ticket for unmowed grass even helping anybody?” said Felsman, who has lived in the same house near Bailey and Walden avenues for 30 years.

“There are real people living here,” she said. “It’s not all drugs or thugs or gangs. To waste time – I had to take off work to fight the ticket.”

Mayor Byron W. Brown has been aggressive about addressing quality-of-life issues, increasing demolitions of vacant properties and establishing a 311 line, where residents can call about problems in their neighborhood and track their complaints. He has championed the city’s “Clean Sweep” program, which seeks to beautify neighborhoods and address a range of criminal activity. And the city’s efforts to incorporate the use of data in tackling quality-of-life issues has won it national recognition.

But somewhere along the way, residents say, the city has become a little too zealous in its quest to clean up city streets.

The city has issued about 800 tickets for high grass so far in 2013, but where they were written, and whether they were warranted, is not known. In interviews, at least four people said they successfully fought the tickets.

The Buffalo News filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the Police Department on July 1 for the location of all high-grass tickets written in the last 18 months. The News still is waiting for a response.

The tickets have particularly upset people in neighborhoods where the quality-of-life problems go way beyond cosmetic concerns.

They said that while tickets are being issued for high grass, or garbage totes placed too close to the street, prostitution and drug dealing are going on nearby.

Even more infuriating for these neighbors is that the city’s own vacant properties – parcels the city owns because the property owner walked away or didn’t pay the bills – can be eyesores, and they are priced too high for the average neighbor to purchase.

Felsman’s neighbor on St. Joseph Avenue, David Szymonek, lives in one of the best-maintained properties on his block, with a manicured lawn, flowers and hanging decorations on his porch.

Szymonek took pictures of the flowers planted at the base of a tree in his well-kept yard after he, too, got a ticket for high grass. He used the photographs to successfully fight the fine during a hearing in City Hall.

“They want you to send in $150, and then you don’t have to go,” he said. Tickets rise to $450 if they are not paid in time.

Szymonek has since ripped out the offending flowers, which were planted between the sidewalk and the curb, on the city’s right of way, to avoid another ticket.

City spokesman Michael J. DeGeorge said the tickets are written at police officers’ discretion, but he noted the tickets that didn’t have merit were eventually dismissed.

“It shows the system is working,” DeGeorge said.

The city owns 6,500 vacant parcels, as well as old schools and empty houses through a variety of circumstances, and it struggles to keep up with mowing grass in what has been a wet growing season. The properties are the responsibility of different city departments.

The city has made some changes this year, including moving the dates of bulk trash pickups to earlier in the year, to free up crews to cut grass instead, said Public Works Commissioner Steven J. Stepniak.

City crews are starting their fourth round of grass cutting on vacant lots this week, Stepniak said.

It’s clear from visits to city-owned properties over the last month that the grass had been cut on many lots, but some remain eyesores.

“The city is doing the best it can when it comes to issues like high grass,” DeGeorge said, adding that residents can call 311 if they have complaints.

At a vacant school the city is trying to sell on Lisbon Street in University Heights, the grass was cut, but weeds grew through the parking lot and playground in the last month. A city-owned lot on Clark Street had high grass this week, as did city-owned houses on Fay and Lombard streets.

Sometimes baseless tickets and tall grass on city lots intersect.

Tall grass on a vacant city-owned lot nearly led to a ticket for a woman who lives near Bailey and Walden avenues.

Pat Gauthier fought the ticket as it was being written and said the police officer who wrote it didn’t look closely enough at where the tall grass was located.

“We were lucky – we were standing right there to show them,” she said.

She thinks she was being eyed for the ticket because of high grass on the city-owned lot next door, which wasn’t mowed all the way to her property line.

Gauthier has been trying to purchase the lot, but she doesn’t want to pay the city’s asking price of $3,800.

She is hoping that the city holds an auction for vacant lots and has delayed putting up a permanent fence.

“We want to take care of the lots, relieve the city of having to come out and mow them,” she said.

Sophie Baj’s garden got her into trouble with the city, and eventually it was mowed down by city crews, she said.

She owns a house on Miller Avenue on the East Side and faced $1,500 in tickets until they were dismissed in January.

“Quality-of-life stuff also involves prostitution, and you’re targeting for high weeds and grasses?” Baj said.

Baj’s tickets included one for garbage, even though it was on the property next door. She had called the city to complain about it. The city cleared the garbage but also wrote her a ticket for it and mowed down plantings on her property.

“Out went my peonies, and everything that would have been in bloom right now,” she said.

Regarding the tickets she received for ornamental grasses on her own property, a judge suggested she rim her garden with bricks or stones, to make it clear that the plantings are intentional, but Baj said that in that neighborhood, heavy things can be used as weapons.

Council Member David A. Franczyk is sympathetic to the plight of the gardeners and would like to see the city’s laws changed to prevent the errant tickets.

He is sponsoring legislation aimed at educating city employees about which properties should be ticketed because they are unkempt and which are intentionally planted with ornamental grasses.

“These people are homeowners who chose not to leave the city and who you really want to go to bat for,” Franczyk said. “They should be helped at every opportunity – which means getting drug dealers off corners, houses demolished if they need to be – and they shouldn’t be ticketed, clearly.”