Sidewalk Woes in Cold Spring

Safety vs. expanding business

By Michael Turton

As Cold Spring’s Main Street Project nears completion (work on Furnace Street will begin July 11), how the new sidewalks are being used by village shop owners remains a thorny and complex issue.

In a letter to store owners on Main Street, Mayor Dave Merandy reminded store owners that, according to the village code, they cannot display merchandise more than three feet beyond the front wall of the store. At some shops, sandwich-board signs, tables, chairs and merchandise crept well beyond that limit. While the law is clear, the threat of paying a fine of as much as $250 or the theoretical possibility of spending up to 15 days in jail did not sit well with some merchants.

Pro and con

“There are too many laws and regulations for this tiny village,” said Patty Villanova, owner of Side Effects/NY Boutique at 137 Main. “They shouldn’t be wasting time on this nonsense.”

Some stores have concrete stoops which are still considered by the village law to be part of the sidewalk. Merchandise must be kept within three feet of the shop's front wall. (Photo by M.Turton)

Some stores have concrete stoops which are still considered by the village law to be part of the sidewalk. Merchandise must be kept within three feet of the shop’s front wall. (Photo by M. Turton)

Caryn Cannova, owner of Kismet at Caryn’s at 72 Main, agreed. “I am so angry at the mayor for how he has handled this,” she said. “He told the police flat out he wants merchants ticketed. He is so anti-merchant, it’s frightening.”

Not everyone sees it that way, of course. Leonora Burton, the longtime owner of The Country Goose at 115 Main, said she supports enforcement of the three-foot law. She said enforcement had all but ceased and some businesses took advantage. She said that at times it had become difficult for pedestrians to navigate the sidewalks, especially those pushing strollers or wheelchairs.

The law is designed to protect pedestrians in part because the village could be held liable for injuries on public sidewalks. The village owns not only the sidewalks but also most of the stoops, porches and patios along Main Street, as well as the benches and trees, all of which come into play with foot traffic.

Sidewalk widths

The issue is complicated by the fact that Main Street sidewalks vary greatly in width. No two blocks are the same. In front of the Garden Café at 116 Main, the sidewalk is more than 17 feet wide. Just across the intersection the sidewalk in front of the Hudson Hil’s Café & Market is less than six feet in width.

At Hudson Hils the sidewalk is only 5 ' 6" wide. (Photo by M. Turton)

At Hudson Hils the sidewalk is only 5 ’ 6″ wide. (Photo by M. Turton)

Stoops and porches further complicate matters. The porches at Hudson Hil’s and the Silver Spoon Café at 124 Main are owned by the Village of Cold Spring. Both extend beyond three feet from the front wall of the building and technically speaking may be in violation of the law.

The porch at the Silver Spoon sits on village owned property. (Photo by M. Turton)

The porch at the Silver Spoon sits on village-owned property. (Photo by M. Turton)

The straw that broke the enforcement camel’s back may have come when the Silver Spoon placed tables and chairs on the sidewalk in front of the porch. Merandy’s letter soon followed. The tables and chairs were removed, and enforcement became more vigorous.

A number of shops also have slate patios. Slightly raised, they are separate from the sidewalk. Even though most are six feet or more in width they fall under the three-foot limit for display of merchandise. Some shop keepers feel the entire patio could be used to display goods since they are not part of the pedestrian walkway.

The Cupocinno Cafe's porch is grandfathered, permitting outdoor dining. (Photo by M. Turton)

The Cupocinno Cafe’s porch is grandfathered, permitting outdoor dining. (Photo by M. Turton)

The patio at the Cupoccino Café at 92 Main is one of the thoroughfare’s many anomalies. Slightly more than six feet wide, it was “grandfathered” when Jesse Arguello and her husband John bought the business several years ago, allowing them to use it as a small seating area beyond the three-foot limit. Arguello said that the café’s certificate of insurance removes the village from any liability.

Turning the law inside out

Villanova believes the law should allow sidewalk signs and merchandise within four feet of the front of the building “whether it’s the structure, a porch or a stoop.” Cannova, while clearly unsatisfied with the situation, is less definitive. “Each shop has different configurations,” she said. “If there are going to be sandwich boards, there should be criteria for how each one looks. But again, that gets murky. Honestly, it’s just common sense on what works and what doesn’t. But that seems to have gone by the wayside as well.”

Cupocinno's Jesse Arguello may be onto something. (Photo by M. Turton)

Cupocinno’s Jesse Arguello may be onto something. (Photo by M. Turton)

Arguello pointed to a possible approach that would turn the existing law inside out. “No two sidewalks are the same width,” she said. “Perhaps the code could be written in such a way that it requires a certain width of the sidewalk to be left unobstructed,” rather than restricting merchants to the use of only three feet. She suggested that the mandatory width be adequate to allow four pedestrians to walk side-by-side.

Merandy told The Current he is “absolutely” open to examining the village’s sidewalk issues, adding that Arguello’s approach may be a good way to rethink the three-foot law.

The mayor also said that municipalities such as Cornwall charge a fee for outdoor dining areas located on municipal property, something he feels Cold Spring should consider for restaurant porches. He said the village needs to have an assessor determine price guidelines for the possible sale of porches owned by the village. Hussein (Jimmy) Abdelhady, owner of the Silver Spoon, has expressed interest in purchasing his porch. Many residences also have porches located on village property.

In the spotlight

Lynn Miller, co-owner of GoGo Pops at 64 Main, is experiencing the three-foot law firsthand, and because she is also a member of the village board, the spotlight shines a bit brighter on her.

In an email to The Current, Cannova complained that while retail shops such as hers must comply to the letter of the law, restaurants with tables and chairs extending out onto the sidewalk more than three feet do not. She used GoGo Pops as an example, stating that its tables and chairs stick six feet out onto the sidewalk.

The sidewalk is more than 17 ft wide in front of The Garden Cafe. (Photo by M. Turton)

The sidewalk is more than 17 ft wide in front of The Garden Cafe. (Photo by M. Turton)

Responding by email, Miller said she is  “not trying to skirt the law by using my position to get around the 3-foot display restriction.” She explained that the tables were placed over steel basement doors because in the past pedestrians had tripped on the hinges.

Miller also pointed out that she put a bicycle and sandwich board on the west edge of the raised stoop at Gallery 66 NY, adjacent to GoGo Pops. They also extend more than three feet from the building. She said that was necessary because pedestrians had also tripped over the edge of the stoop.

“We chose to position our sidewalk sign and chairs to prevent injuries to pedestrians,” she said. Measurements taken by The Current showed that GoGo Pops’ tables and chairs extend five feet from the building. Between the tables and chairs and Main Street the open sidewalk is nine feet wide.

In an email Merandy commented further, saying “any changes made to our code would have to be very detailed. If we extend the distance, there has to be a minimum-clear pedestrian walk. That would have to be clear in the code.”

He added: “I’m fine with restaurants having tables on the sidewalks if they are kept tight and there is plenty of sidewalk left,” he said, using Cold Spring Pizza and the Garden Café as examples. “But I’m dead against having merchants stack their wares up all over the sidewalks past three feet.”

The Code Update Committee is revising much of the existing village code but the section dealing with sidewalks is not currently being reviewed.

12 thoughts on “Sidewalk Woes in Cold Spring

  1. I think the governing principle should be that no one is allowed to block or obstruct the use of the sidewalks any more than they should be allowed to block the roadway, for other than incidental and unavoidable reasons. Any obstruction will be against the interest of the public, and among other effects, will tend to discourage commerce, and will make the environment less safe, particularly given the heavy usage we all know our busy village sidewalks often see.

    The mayor and the police should not have to waste time on this issue. Only common sense and decency are needed.

    The committee and the board can look into the details to see if any clarifications or changes are warranted. The public can initiate petitions with requests or suggestions.

    As far as private ownership of the portions of public right-of-ways, even where improvements are involved, I am skeptical and unconvinced as to the validity of the idea. Where does it end?

  2. Instead of making our merchants lives difficult we should really support them. It’s hard enough for them to have a shop or restaurant in a small village like Cold Spring especially in the winter. If we want tourists to come back and bring money to the village we should keep it the way it is. I have never seen anyone not be able to pass or walk on the sidewalk.

  3. The National Complete Streets project has valuable information on the elements to consider in, among other things, planning for safe pedestrian movement. Just one good source.

    Most shopkeepers and/or building owners know they must keep the public sidewalk in front of their businesses clear or snow and ice in the wintertime, as do residential homeowners. Even though you do not own the sidewalk, you understand your maintenance obligations under Village Code, which is a local law. Why would obstructing sidewalks with merchandise or signage be any different? I doubt very much that merchants actually want to see the village faced with lawsuits (which could eventually result in increased taxes) because they think their individual business interests outweigh public safety.

    I am always amazed at people who consider themselves law-abiding and pro-law enforcement, but balk at complying with laws they don’t like.

  4. Thanks for a great article and comments. In this day and age of microscopic attention spans, it always a pleasure to see people take the time out of their busy lives to read and write on any given subject. This whole fiasco about the sidewalk merchandise is nothing but a tempest in a teapot and Esther Booth has it right — we merchants have enough problems trying to stay in business without any more harassment from the mayor and other misguided public officials.

    Vigorous enforcement of a law that has been dormant for nearly a decade makes no sense unless you view it in the context of what in my opinion, is Mr. Merandy’s apparent war on commerce in the Village. In most places the sidewalks are plenty wide enough to accommodate the various signs and displays that are put out on a very temporary basis by the merchants and business owners. Can anyone tell me this — how many pedestrians have been injured in the last 10 years as a result of crashing into signs or tripping over merchandise?

    Another bit of hypocrisy about who owns the sidewalks and porches, and for this one I agree with Frank Haggerty — where does it end? Here’s what I’m talking about. A couple of years ago there was a water main break in the pipe going into the building where I rent my shop. It was underground about 10 to 15 feet out into Main Street which, in my estimation, clearly belonged to the Village. Yet my landlord was told by these same people who claim they own everything right up to the front door, that he had to pay more than $10,000 to fix the Village’s property, i.e., the water main!

    Ladies and gentlemen, I submit that you can’t have it both ways. If the village claims it owns and can police all property from the front of the building on out, then they should damn well have to pay for basic maintenance including the water mains that are clearly public property.

    Instead of constantly devising new and improved ways to harass the business owners who are struggling in this terrible economy, how about taking care of the infrastructure that affects everyone who lives here or visits? I didn’t see them doing anything about the crumbling sidewalks till they’d spent half the grant money and were about to lose the rest. I still don’t see them fixing the street lights even after our Lighting Committee showed them how to get the fixtures replaced for free.

    Clearly this isn’t about health and safety. There is another agenda here and it’s the same agenda that I see in the federal government, the state, the county and our towns, wherever politicians are at work: money and power, that’s all it’s ever about.

  5. The repair and maintenance of water and sewer laterals (that is, the pipes that run from a building to the shut-off valve at the curb or in the street, depending on where the main is located) rests with the property owner, regardless of whether the property is commercial or residential. That’s in the Village Code, and has been for a very, very long time. It’s unfortunate when owners are badly surprised by pre-existing laws.

    The sidewalk project began some three mayoral administrations ago. The current Village Board inherited a long-delayed project. The tenacity of Trustees Early and Murphy will finally bring this project very soon to its conclusion.

    The elected Mayor and Trustees take oaths of office, including swearing to uphold the law. Is it suggested that they should not uphold laws?

    When one embarks upon a business venture, that business owner automatically takes risk. He or she is ultimately responsible for its success or failure. There are many external forces that can influence those results, most prominently market forces. If a business owner cannot take the heat, he or she should “get out of the kitchen” (to quote President Truman).

  6. The paranoia of some merchants is inexplicable — sidewalks should be clear for the handicapped in wheelchairs, parents with baby strollers, pedestrians who want to walk two or three abreast and people who have dogs on leases. To have billboards and other debris cluttering the sidewalks is not what this village needs. Every storeowner needs to understand that clear sidewalks means more people can enjoy the window displays and artfully displayed merchandise close to the storefronts.

  7. Good article that tells both sides. My two cents? Ms. Arguello’s common-sense suggestion seems like the most workable solution. There is nothing standardized at all about Main Street sidewalks, even after the patching work, so why a standardized measurement where exceeding 36 inches from the building triggers a fine, regardless of how much pedestrian walkway is left clear? Even more sensible would be to go back to the days where these things would be solved through a quick word between neighbors instead of a visit from the police and a fine.

    Main Street is beautiful when there is a vibrant mix of outdoor dining, merchandise, signage and people. The vendors who have been targeted contribute greatly to that vibrancy and don’t deserve this. Is there some major increase in trip and fall lawsuits that has otherwise gone unreported that is triggering this? Is this an unused hammer in search of a nail, just to make sure it works?

    I’m not a lawyer, but I imagine a good one would look at the comments in this article acknowledging selective enforcement under subjective and undocumented criteria, even when good intentions like addressing a tripping hazard are involved, and quickly get the tickets issued thrown out. Who wins then except the lawyers and their wallets?

    More talking, less lawyers and everybody wins. Otherwise Main Street will look like a bland ghost town with no character at all once the Village is forced to consistently apply the three-foot criteria to all merchants.

  8. Tom hit the nail on the head (no pun intended): Main Street is better when there’s the vibrant mix that he talks about, Otherwise it looks like a ghost town with bare sidewalks and no signs of life inside.

    On the other hand, no matter what the issue, it seems that there are certain people in Cold Spring who feel they have a sacred duty to defend the status quo no matter how repulsive or ridiculous it may be. They contribute nothing to the conversation, just the usual boring, snide, thinly disguised personal attacks on anyone who dares to speak up or question their narrative.

    Their answer to everything is to blame the other merchants or business owners for standing up to the bullies. According them, we should all just shut up and sit down because everything is just hunky dory here on Main Street and we should all be grateful to the mayor and board for doing such a great job for us. If only that were the case.

    Mike Turton’s article presented a very dispassionate review of the current situation. He did not take sides, he merely reported on the issues. He interviewed people and wrote down what we said. It’s obvious from the story that we have some problems here. You know the old saying — where there’s smoke there’s fire.

  9. So, now we are going to have months of debating the sidewalk clearance? Could we, perhaps, focus on things that don’t work? Like malfunctioning street lights or alerting residents about danger of being eaten by a black bear, or how to stop the spread of vector-born diseases? By the way, I couldn’t care less about merchants who only care about profits from tourism and offer little to the village residents.

    • Can you share what you would like from the local merchants and what they should offer to village or area residents? I think they would like this kind of feedback.

      • Dear Rand, the merchants know but if you like me to spell it out: everyone I talked to said the same thing: Decent food for decent prices.

  10. The merchants of Cold Spring have invested hundreds of thousands of dollars of their own money to set up their businesses in town. We are the life blood of the economy of the Village. Our rents help the landlords to pay their property taxes. The tourists that shop in our stores spend the “cleanest” money you will ever see. They come to town, walk around, drop a few bucks and leave.

    That’s unlike the average residential family, which costs more in services than its taxes support, especially school taxes, where the cost of educating one child is nearly $30,000 a year. Because of the business owners of Cold Spring and the money that they generate, those costs are not only spread out among the resident taxpayers but are also subsidized to some extent by the commercial tax base (the merchants). If you want to live in a town with no commercial rate-ables, try Putnam Valley, which has some the highest property taxes in Putnam County.