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Elmwood holiday lighting drama: Grinchy or necessary?

blog by Ben Tsujimoto  • 

With Christmas only three weeks away, the news that Elmwood Avenue may not glisten with holiday lights has local business owners and Elmwood Village lovers up in arms. 

In Elmwood’s shopping and dining area between Lafayette and West Ferry, over 40 small business owners annually pool money together ($30 apiece—nothing extravagant) to adorn trees lining the street with holiday lights to create a festive atmosphere for shoppers.

Sounds fairly harmless with immense sentimental value, right?

The City of Buffalo’s street lighting department, headed by senior engineer Michael Hoffert, has chosen to crack down on these businesses’ “long-standing non-compliance with the City Charter,” demanding that the holiday lights fit within city regulations.

A few of the demands of the charter:

1) To hang street lights, $1 million in liability insurance must be purchased to hold the City of Buffalo harmless (such insurance runs for roughly $200-$300)

2) The liability insurance was to be filed by Oct. 1, meaning that—at this point—it’s too late for Elmwood small businesses to comply

3) Installation, connection and removal of decorations or festoons must be done by a licensed, insured electrician

4) The bottom of the decorations must be at least 14 feet, 6 inches above the street

The sudden crackdown offended small business owners, particularly Acropolis OPA owner Paul Tsouflidis, who called for public support in making sure that Elmwood could hang holiday lights this year.

Following this slew of tweets, Tsouflidis traveled to various locations throughout the City of Buffalo—in front of Hotel at the Lafayette, on Amherst Street between Grant and Elmwood—to find other areas in Buffalo that did not comply with the City Charter, drawing attention to alleged selective enforcement.

You can see those images by checking out his Twitter account.

Fundamentally, the issue is this: Elmwood Avenue merchants have been hanging holiday lights in front of their businesses for years, yet are now being denied due to city regulations—the same guidelines that have been in place for several years.

Even though the city charter was in place but not enforced prior, does it now make those rules any less valid?

We received hopeful news this afternoon from the Elmwood Village Association, from which the following statement was released:

The holiday lights are a long-standing tradition here on Elmwood, and they create a unique and enjoyable shopping experience here. I’ve been assured by the City of Buffalo that the lights will not have to come down, but we are working with them to find a safe and workable solution that helps to resolve some of the City’s concerns. We’ll continue to work with City officials and Elmwood Village business owners to make sure that this tradition continues this season and in the future.

Here are the arguments:

—Supporting the City of Buffalo: After I spoke with Hoffert on the phone this morning, the Street Lighting Department worker made it clear that his small branch of local government isn’t hellbent on persecuting small business.

“I’m not the Grinch,” Hoffert said. “I used to hang Christmas lights on my property, too.

“I’m concerned with the safety of the citizens of Buffalo; I want to minimize liability and I want to maintain the integrity of street light regulations.”

Hoffert, who noted that he’d visited Elmwood Avenue this morning, recalled electrical worries he’s encountered: five decorated trees with wires linking all of them, plugged into one outlet; perilously placed conductors; and wires that were not taped or waterproofed—in other words, decorations that were not the project of professional electricians with a more honed understanding of electrical safety.

From Hoffert’s perspective, ensuring the safe use of street lights is paramount to sentimental whims like holiday spirit, and he’s also bound to uphold not only the City of Buffalo’s charter, but also the National Electrical Code.

From an electrical fire to a shopper tripping over a cord, Hoffert isn’t interested in taking chances.

“I’m not going to wait until someone gets hurt or killed,” Hoffert said bluntly.

In response to a business owner’s claim that the light bulbs weren’t a safety hazard because of their low-voltage LED nature, Hoffert explained the irrelevance of the type of bulb when it’s plugged into the same 110-volt outlet.

Moreover, Hoffert is working to prevent the National Grid from arbitrarily billing the city for its holiday energy usage—the data is collected with greater accuracy when the code is followed, as specifics for each decoration would be submitted by the festive small businesses. It’s the financial inner-workings of the city government like this that get buried by a wave of sentimental feelings.

—Supporting the small businesses:

Obviously, sentimental value is at play here—bright holiday bulbs illuminate the night as shoppers trudge from shop to shop, checking off their gift lists. Buffalo’s most lucrative shopping district demands and deserves nice aesthetics, right?

Plus, if holiday decorations have been hung without impediment for years, why should businesses adapt now that regulations are enforced? What about Tsouflidis’ complaint of selective enforcement? It’s not like this holiday season is any more dangerous than 2012’s or 2011’s.

“I’m totally caught off guard by this. This is a long-standing tradition,” Tsouflidis, pictured middle, remarked to The Buffalo News’ Jay Tokasz.

A larger issue is at hand here, too. Is there any room for leniency within city code? Safety is vital, for sure, but why isn’t there a more clear procedure in place for small businesses—which may not know how to implement all of the regulations—to quickly and efficiently meet safety standards so they can draw or appease customers?

“I don’t exactly know how much it would cost or how we would even go about getting insurance for all the lights on the trees,” Tsouflidis said.

At least for this December, Elmwood Avenue could be darker than usual if the City of Buffalo and the nearby small businesses cannot ensure safe decorations.

(Header photo is courtesy of Flickr / Joshuahinds).

TAGGED: acropolis, city of buffalo, elmwood avenue, paul tsouflidis, street lights

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