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In East Aurora, town and village tussle over bridge – and other towns watch

You almost wouldn't know you were driving over a bridge on Brooklea Drive in East Aurora, but the small double culvert over Tannery Brook is now famous – at least in some wonky, legal circles.

That's because the question of who is responsible for repairing and maintaining the bridge that leads to a 45-year-old subdivision has been an ongoing tussle between the Town of Aurora and the Village of East Aurora.

The dispute went to the state's highest court – and now some hope the decision will clarify the state law that gives responsibility for village spans to towns.

The Court of Appeals settled the matter for the Brooklea Drive bridge, using a law that originated in 1897. The town is responsible for maintaining the bridge, the court ruled in a 4-3 decision Nov. 20.

"We see this as a matter of equity and fairness," said Wade Beltramo, general counsel for the New York State Conference of Mayors, which filed a brief in support of the village. "These communities, they’re intertwined, as the village goes, so goes the surrounding town."

When the ruling came out, the bridge had already been repaired, thanks to a $50,000 grant from state Sen. Patrick Gallivan in 2015.

But there are seven other bridges in the village, including the North Grove Street bridge, which has been closed for months after a milling machine exposed the deck of the bridge during routine pavement work over the summer.

The attorney who won the case for East Aurora, Paul D. Weiss, said he believes the decision applies not only to the Village of East Aurora and its eight bridges, but is of significance for the state's 932 towns and 555 villages.

The ruling says it applies only to the Brooklea bridge. But the decision also indicates the only way a village can assume control of a bridge is by passing a resolution. Absent that resolution, Weiss said, and it's the town's responsibility.

Weiss said the village will be sending the town a letter, asking it to repair the North Grove Street bridge.

The Town Board is waiting for advice from its attorney on what to do about the other bridges.

"It's not black and white, that’s the problem with this whole thing," Aurora town supervisor James Bach said. "The laws are so vague and old and really need to be cleaned up, but how do you do that?"

This case started about 12 years ago, when New York State flagged the bridge as in need of structural repairs. In 2010, the village told the state Department of Transportation that under state law, the town is responsible for maintaining bridges in the village. So the state told the Town of Aurora it had to fix the bridge, which had been approved, financed and built by the village in 1973.

Aurora officials filed legal action, asking for a State Supreme Court determination that the village had to maintain the road. The court sided with the village, and the Appellate Division reversed that decision, ruling in favor of the town. The village appealed to the Court of Appeals.

State law says a village can assume control of a bridge, and it lays out the mechanism for that. The Court of Appeals majority decided that East Aurora never assumed control.

But for dissenting Justice Eugene M. Fahey, that reasoning "is simply a bridge too far." He maintained the village built the bridge with no participation from Aurora, and it was not necessary for the village to pass a resolution to take control of the bridge.

It comes down to who is going to foot the bill.

"There's no question these are costly. The replacement of the bridges are costly," Weiss said.

"Clearly this is going to be better for the village taxpayer and not as good for the town," said Beltramo of the state Conference of Mayors.

If the decision can be applied to the other bridges in the village, Bach said the town would act on it.

"It would mean we’ll have to put a plan together, and bond for whatever we need," Bach said.

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