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After flurry of fines in 2015, few in Amherst pay price for snow-clogged sidewalks

This March had a dismal streak of 30-degree days, but it has nothing on February 2015 – the coldest month in the region's recorded history.

That month, the snow never had a chance to melt as it piled higher and higher on lawns, driveways and sidewalks.

In Amherst, the deep snow pack prompted hundreds of complaints to the town about unpassable sidewalks – and led the town to fine dozens of property owners for failing to clear their sidewalks.

In recent years, however, the town has received fewer sidewalk complaints, and the number of fines has melted away to nothing.

In 2015, 65 property owners paid fines of up to $250 for failing to clear the snow from their sidewalks. But no one in the town has paid a fine for this violation since March 2017.

"If people are picking up after the violation, then the violation is serving its cause and people are avoiding paying the fine," said Erich Krueger, president of the Willow Ridge Community Association, whose concern about snowy sidewalks in his neighborhood prompted him to start a Facebook page that publicly shames commercial property owners who violate the law.

Amherst continues to receive complaints, and to issue notices when it discovers sidewalk violations. But the town has eased back on fining offenders or dragging them into court even as the region coped with its snowiest winter in three years.

Town officials say they combine education and enforcement as they seek compliance with the town's sidewalk ordinance. They want to make sure property owners follow the law and keep their sidewalks clear of snow. It's a safety concern for shoppers walking on busy thoroughfares, for students walking to school and for other pedestrians.

Amherst officials said they don't want to overwhelm the Town Court with sidewalk violations. And that's one reason the town gives property owners a second chance to clear away the snow before sidewalk violators face fines.

"It's a balance," said Brian P. Andrzejewski, the town's building commissioner.

New way to address snow-clogged sidewalks: Facebook shaming

 

Amherst isn't the only town to confront snowy sidewalks, but as the area's largest suburb it's a case study in how those laws are enforced.

The Town of Amherst sidewalk ordinance states property owners must "keep it free and clear from snow, ice, dirt or other obstruction." But the rule, enforced by employees of the town Building Department, is open to interpretation.

For example, there's no language in the code on whether a certain depth of snow triggers the requirement to clear. Andrzejewski said he doesn't direct his staff to rely on a measurement of the snow on the sidewalk but instead tells them to determine whether the sidewalk is unpassable.

"It's somewhat subjective, but we try to make it as objective as we can," Andrzejewski said.

Also, even though it's not stated in the code, the town waits 24 hours after the end of a storm before enforcing the sidewalk-clearing requirement.

Of course, town enforcement officers can't hit every one of the town's 34,356 residential and 4,699 commercial parcels after every storm.

If the town receives a complaint, an employee will look at every parcel on that street, Andrzejewski said. Also, employees make a point to go back to properties with previous violations.

If it's the town's first visit to a property, an enforcement officer will leave a notice of violation – a warning – that gives the owner another 24 hours to clear the sidewalk.

Most property owners comply with the warning and clear the sidewalk, Andrzejewski said.

After that warning period, if town employees on a return visit find the sidewalk is still impassable, then the town can issue a summons that carries a fine.

"I think that's fair," Krueger said, noting that it gives commercial property owners a chance to follow up with their clearing service if necessary.

The Buffalo News requested data from the town on sidewalk enforcement dating back to 2015.

To a large extent, and not surprisingly, higher snowfall levels generally spur more complaints and more fines. For example, the winter of 2014-15, which produced 112.9 inches of snow, generated 442 complaints about snow-covered sidewalks. That included the monstrous November lake-effect storm and the frigid February.

The number of complaints slipped to 116 in 2015-16, when the region had just 55.1 inches of snow, and to 81 complaints in 2016-17, when we had 76.1 inches.

As snowfall climbed to 105.4 inches this winter, the town received 149 complaints. The figures cover the Town of Amherst outside the Village of Williamsville.

The town did not track the number of violation notices it issued prior to this winter, when it issued 201 through early March.

The Town Court keeps records on sidewalk fines. From Jan. 1, 2015, through the middle of this March, the town collected 70 fines totalling $5,700 for violations of the sidewalk ordinance.

But 65 of the 70 came in 2015 – primarily in January, February and March of that year. Four fines came in 2016 and just one came in 2017.

No one has paid a fine for violating the sidewalk ordinance since March 2017. Andrzejewski said the town has issued a small number of summonses, no more than 10, this winter.

Residential property owners pay $25 for a first offense, $50 for a second offense and $100 for all future offenses. Owners of non-residential parcels pay $75, $150 or $250.

Among the fined: Marrone and Mesi

Some property owners are two- or three-time violators. The Western New York Spine Center on Kensington Avenue, for example, was fined three times in 2015 for not clearing its sidewalks for $475 total.

A manager who would only give his first name, Brian, said the practice about two years ago started hiring someone to keep the sidewalks clear of snow after storms. "I haven't had any complaints since," he said.

And the Super 8 hotel on Transit Road in East Amherst paid two fines, totaling $225, after receiving a pair of sidewalk summonses eight days apart in February 2015.

Bob Patel, who took over as the hotel's owner March 1, said the hotel has retained the previous owner's sidewalk-clearing service. Patel said he will see how that works and, if necessary, he will do the job himself. "Definitely, you will not hear about it next winter," Patel said.

The list includes two names recognizable to local sports fans: former Buffalo Bills head coach Doug Marrone and former boxer "Baby" Joe Mesi.

Marrone, now the coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars, was fined $25 for not clearing the sidewalk of his LeBrun Road home on Feb. 18, 2015.

This was after Marrone's infamous decision to quit the Bills following the 2014 season, and after he landed in Jacksonville, Fla., as the Jaguars' offensive line coach. That means Marrone wasn't around to shovel his Amherst sidewalk.

Mesi got a $25 ticket in 2015. Mesi said he remembers paying the fine but doesn't recall why he didn't clear his sidewalk. He said he normally is vigilant about this responsibility but may have been out of town for work at the time.

"I support that rule, law or regulation. I think people should clear their sidewalks," Mesi said.

People who get a violation notice or a summons aren't thrilled, Andrzejewski said, but most understand why the town acted.

Some have ready excuses. Snowbirds call the Building Department to complain that they can't keep their sidewalks clear because they spend the winters in Florida.

"We get a lot of those situations," said Andrzejewski, who said he urges the callers who make arrangements to keep their sidewalks clear while they're out of town.

Andrzejewski said the town's goal is to convince property owners to keep their sidewalks clear of snow. The town tries an educational approach first, through the warnings. Issuing a summons and fining the owner is a last step.

"It's a judgment call," Andrzejewski said, adding, "We're getting compliance."

Is this effective? Complaints did rise again this winter after dipping dramatically the past two, less-snowy winters.

"I think if the violation is ignored, then they need to make sure they say, 'OK, you're going to pay,' and maybe the town should go clear it and say, 'You're paying us, too,' " Krueger said.

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