Criticism continues over proposed rooftop law

A proposed Fredonia local law curbing rooftop use on private property continues to receive harsh criticism from both a village board member and members of the public.

The law, banning rooftop usage that puts anyone’s safety in jeopardy, has a public hearing Monday at 7:30 p.m. in Village Hall. Ahead of that time, Trustee Marc Ruckman expressed reservations about such a law.

“Talking to our insurance carrier, Lawley Tradition, they think this law is a bad idea,” he said. “If a roof does collapse and someone is on it, they’ll sue the village for failing to enforce this law. Insurance costs could possibly go up across the board, and taxpayers will be the ones paying for it when we start having claims against the village.”

Ruckman added there could be a scenario where a police officer sees someone on their rooftop and decides not to enforce the law “just this once,” which could be grounds for litigation if that person falls off their roof.

“Why create an exposure when there isn’t one there already?” he pointed out. “This is one more liability I feel the village doesn’t need.”

Village Attorney Samuel Drayo disagreed with Ruckman’s stance.

“There will not be a liability created,” he said. “Anybody can sue anybody; it doesn’t mean it will have standing in court, which makes the final decision. There’s a liability now since the proper tools to enforce safety on rooftops are not there, creating a danger.

“This law gives police that tool to try to avoid situations that create a peril to the safety and welfare of not just students, but anyone using a porch roof and drinking, partying, things that create a danger for anyone on a roof.”

Drayo added a police officer would have to have reasonable grounds to see a violation actually occurring and an opportunity to correct the situation, but fail to correct it, before any litigation against the village could have the potential to be successful.

“You could apply (Ruckman’s liability concern) to any law on the books,” he said. “You don’t say, ‘Everybody can go whatever speed they want,’ and throw out speeding laws just because you can’t catch every single speeder in the village.”

According to the law, “No owner or tenant of any premises or any other person shall use, permit, or allow the use (of) a roof or porch roof or balcony of a building in a manner as to create a condition that may imperil the safety and welfare of any person, such as, but not limited to, using the roof or porch or balcony of a building for partying, drinking, congregating for demonstrations or meetings. This shall apply to any dwelling, garage or any building used for a business.”

A violation could be punishable by a fine of at most $500.

While that is how the proposed law currently reads, Drayo plans to slightly tweak it ahead of the public hearing.

“There’s just some minor corrections and a couple of errors that need to be fixed grammar-wise in the law,” he said. “Basically, it’s just going over it with a fine-tooth comb.”

A resolution prepared ahead of the Monday meeting states the law, in its final form, has been laid upon the desks of the trustees at least seven days prior.

“I’m not sure if tweaking it at this point is legal,” Ruckman said. “If it’s been changed, then we need it seven days prior since that’s what the resolution says. If this has to be tweaked this late in the game, there’s something wrong.”

“When proposing new legislation, the board would certainly want to make sure the public has the correct information beforehand so they can comment accurately on it,” Planning Board member James Lynden said. “How are the trustees going to prepare for it when they get it in its final form at the last minute?”

Lynden added if the law is enforced selectively, such as solely on college students partying on rooftops, it would be a form of discrimination.

“You can’t make a law and enforce it on specific people,” he said. “You also can’t put control laws on things people do on their own private property. What will be next?”

Drayo disagreed again by saying state laws obligate the village to control various aspects of private property, such as fire code requirements.

“We can go into a place to do code inspections, so this proposed law is nothing new as far as inspecting properties to make sure they’re safe,” he added.

The law being proposed is mainly in response to last year’s SUNY Fredonia FredFest, when a large number of college students drank and partied on a Canadaway Street residence’s porch rooftop.

“Those porch roofs are held up by just a couple of stanchions, and if that would have collapsed, not only the people on the roof, but the people on the porch would have suffered major injuries, if not deaths,” Mayor Stephen Keefe said. “Sometimes you have to legislate common sense, and that’s what we’re looking at now; how to create a safe environment. We need to take responsibility for our local citizens. If we can take an action to protect them, we need to consider that.”

Resident and landlord Michaelene Comerford expressed her opposition to the proposed law.

“The village board hastily crafted a law they would like to push through before this year’s FredFest celebration,” she said. “This is a matter to be handled by property owners or landlords, whose responsibility is to make it crystal clear to any tenant just what behaviors are acceptable on the property, including rooftop occupancy.”

Ruckman agreed and equated the law’s passage to that of the New York Secure Ammunition and Firearms Enforcement Act of 2013, which opponents say passed too quickly.

“We don’t need to be involved in policing private homes’ rooftops,” he concluded.