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Regulations for recreational fires remain on hold in Massena

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MASSENA - A code change that would have regulated recreational fires in the village of Massena was placed on hold Tuesday evening after concerns raised by a Massena woman led two village board members to question their support for the law as it now stands.

Ruth Elmer, who noted she has asthma, spoke out against the proposed code change.

“I am very much opposed to this,” she said. “I don’t usually make waves, but tonight I want a tsunami to put out all of those little fires you want to build.”

The prospects of more fires burning in the village are something that Ms. Elmer said is troubling to her and should be troubling to other people suffering from asthma, mesothelioma, emphysema or CHPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease).

“We’re going to be living under a cloud, and we can hardly breathe as it is,” she said. “I know you’ve already passed a law against smoking in the parks and other outdoor areas, but you might as well rescind that. This isn’t progress; it’s regression.”

Even though the fires are currently against the law, Ms. Elmer said there are people in her neighborhood having fires and burning things other than wood.

“Breathing is our innate right. We should be able to breathe fresh air,” she said. “I can’t enjoy the outdoors because there is too much smoke. I have to close up all my windows and doors just like in the winter. If people want to have a campfire, they should go camping.”

Trustee Timothy J. Ahlfeld said the concerns raised by Ms. Elmer were not something he had previously thought about.

“The point you brought up I didn’t even think of. That’s why we have public hearings,” he said.

Later, after also hearing from former Fire Chief Thomas C. Miller and Fire Chief Ted Krywanczyk, Mr. Ahlfeld made a motion to table the law.

Mr. Miller voiced concerns that although the village’s career firefighters, who also handle code enforcement duties, were involved in crafting the law, the volunteer firefighters were not.

“The firefighters didn’t have any input on this, you know the volunteers, the ones who put the fires out,” he said, prior to being given a copy of the law to review.

Mr. Krywanczyk said he feels like this is something that should be jointly discussed between the village and town.

“It almost seems like this should be a joint thing,” he said, noting the fires would still be illegal outside the village limits. “It’s going to create problems instead of alleviate problems.”

When making a motion to table the law, Mr. Ahlfeld said postponing the vote would give Mr. Miller and the volunteer firefighters time to look at the law. Trustee Francis J. Carvel also voted to table the law. “The lady here comes with a good point,” he said.

Mayor James F. Hidy, who was joined by Trustee Albert C. “Herb” Deshaies in voting against tabling the law, unsuccessfully aimed to ease the concerns raised by Ms. Elmer and the fire department.

Mr. Hidy said the law would require people to burn wood, while also requiring fires to be contained in a fire burning apparatus.

“It addresses the problems of the pungent cardboard,” Mr. Hidy said. “If you have a neighbor burning something other than wood, call the fire department or code office.”

Mr. Carvel noted that was a portion of the intent behind creating the law.

“One of the reasons this came about was this would stop them from burning cardboard, pressure treated lumber or painted lumber,” he said.

While the mayor said he understood Ms. Elmer’s concerns, he also said that the village includes 10,000 other people who might want to have fires in their backyards.

“Everyone’s entitled to enjoy their backyards. We have people with kids who want to roast marshmallows or whatever,” he said. “We can’t discount them.”

With Trustee Patricia K. Wilson not present, the vote to table the measure ended in a tie. Mr. Hidy then suggested moving the item down on the agenda, in hopes Ms. Wilson would arrive and could break the tie. She did not attend the meeting.

That move, however, was met with a great deal of criticism from former Massena Mayor Charles R. “Charlie” Boots and former County Legislator R. Sean Gray.

“I’m very concerned about your actions tonight,” Mr. Gray said. “Obviously her (Ms. Elmer) comments gave pause to one, if not two trustees. You manipulated the agenda in hopes another trustee would arrive. That’s a travesty. That’s the kind of thing that gives local government a bad name.”

By refusing to table the measure, Mr. Gray said Mr. Hidy was insulting Ms. Elmer, as well as his fellow board members who following Ms. Elmer’s comments had some reservations about voting on the proposed code changes.

“It’s an insult to this woman, and it’s an insult to the other trustees,” Mr. Gray said.

Mr. Boots also noted that he didn’t think pushing the item down the agenda was the proper thing to do.

“To bring this up in another part of the agenda, I don’t think is right,” he said, also questioning why the proposed law was even being discussed.

“Why did this particular bill come before the board?” he asked.

While Mr. Hidy didn’t answer Mr. Boots’s question at that time, earlier in the meeting he said, “Ken’s (Code Enforcement Officer and Fire Department Foreman McGowan) intent was to regulate something that was already happening.”

Mr. Boots said though that just because people were already doing something didn’t mean that it should be made legal.

He noted marijuana has been legalized in some states but remains illegal in New York. “A lot of people smoke marijuana, so we might as well pass a law legalizing that,” he said, quickly adding as a former health teacher that is not a move he would support.

After the proposal came up for discussion a second time, a motion was again made by Mr. Ahlfeld to table the proposal.

“I’m not opposed to it, but Mrs. Elmer brought up some points that I didn’t think of. I should have, but I didn’t,” he said. “I don’t think more information is a bad thing to have.”

Given that Ms. Wilson was still not present the vote to table the law again deadlocked in a 2-2 tie.

“If we didn’t table it and it doesn’t pass what do we do now?” Mr. Ahlfeld said, asking a rhetorical question that went unanswered during open session.

Mr. Ahlfeld also jokingly asked if Mr. Hidy would like to again move the item even later on agenda, something he declined to do.

“We might give someone a heart attack,” he said.

Mr. Hidy, speaking after the meeting, said the law is something he would like to see discussed again in future meetings.

“It’s certainly not a dead issue,” he said. “As I said I’m certainly sympathetic to anyone who has a breathing condition, but I also feel people have the right to enjoy their property, as long as it’s within the conditions set forth in the law.”

Referring to the proposed code changes, Mr. Hidy said he feels like Ms. Elmer’s concerns are addressed.

Section C reads, “A recreational fire that is hazardous, offensive, objectionable, or unreasonably interferes with the comfortable enjoyment of life or property due to smoke or odor emissions shall be prohibited.”

Section D reads, “The Code Enforcement Officer, Fire Chief or Chief of Police or his or her designee is authorized to order the extinguishment of a recreational fire which creates or adds to a hazardous, offensive, or objectionable condition.”

“If she finds it offensive, all she has to do is call code enforcement or the police department,” he said.

Mr. Hidy also took offense to Mr. Gray’s comments.

“In my opinion Mr. Gray has a tendency to grandstand, and this was just another example of him blowing a situation way out of proportion,” he said. “It’s almost to the point where it is hard to take him seriously anymore.”

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