A town resident approached the podium for public comment at a recent Town Board meeting, and the supervisor directed the microphone be lowered to ensure what was to be said would be recorded. And what was to be said was important not only to the speaker, but to anyone sweltering in the recent summer heat.
The speaker was Alex Burgess, recently graduated from the third grade at Rosendale Elementary School. The topic was ice cream trucks.
Burgess was at the meeting with classmates Julia LeBlanc and Brendan McDonnell to present a petition, aimed at restoring long-banned ice cream trucks to the streets of Niskayuna.
Burgess and friends gathered a total of 61 signatures in support of overturning Niskayuna’s more than 30-year-old ban on the mobile ice cream purveyors.
When a board member asked Alex why she wanted to bring ice cream trucks back to the town, the soon-to-be fourth grader was matter-of-fact.
“Because kids like ice cream,” she told the board at the June 29 meeting, just before the recent heat wave. “It’s nice to have in the summer.”
Town Board members and Supervisor Joe Landry said afterward that they are taking the petition seriously.
“This is something that these children are asking us to look at, so we’ll seriously look at it.” he said.
And they could look at it as early as this week.
The board is expected to consider a trial run of sorts for August, with a public hearing on the issue held July 29.
If the trial is approved, the issue will be revisited at the close of the trial, board members said.
The Niskayuna ban stemmed from multiple accidents in the 1970s involving children purchasing ice cream from the trucks, including at least one local child’s death.
But the owner of a local ice cream truck company, whose company began after the 1970s accidents, says safety has long since been bolstered through lights, signs and training.
Niskayuna and Rotterdam are believed to be the only two municipalities in the area that continue a full ban on sales of ice cream from the street.
The concerns have always centered around safety: children so excited over the prospect of ice cream that they run into traffic and get hit.
Schenectady once banned the trucks, but restored them, with restrictions, in 1987.
All three municipalities banned the trucks in 1975 and 1976. Gazette newspaper accounts cited two deaths and one injury as the result of children stepping out from ice cream trucks and getting hit by passing cars.
Niskayuna banned the trucks in June 1976, after a 6-year-old was struck and injured. Rotterdam barred trucks from its roads the previous September, in 1975, in response to the death of a 6-year-old girl who was struck by a passing car leaving a ice cream truck on Putnam Road earlier that year.
There have been repeated efforts over the years to allow the trucks back, much of the efforts coming from the owner of Latham-based ice cream company Mr. Ding-A-Ling.
Owner Brian Collis sued Schenectady in 1987, challenging the city’s ban. That led to the city restoring the vehicles under time and location restrictions. Among the Schenectady restrictions upon restoration were that the trucks couldn’t interfere with vehicular traffic or other businesses. The trucks were also only to travel on secondary streets.
A similar challenge was leveled against Niskayuna in 1989. But the town did not lift its ban, a decision backed by the state Attorney General’s office.
In 1999, Collis took another tack with Rotterdam, asking the Town Board to lift the ban. The effort failed and Rotterdam, too, held fast, with board members citing safety concerns.
Asked about the Rotterdam ban last week, current Rotterdam board member Robert Godlewski said that if the topic returned to Rotterdam, he would be in favor of keeping the ban as-is.
“It’s a child safety issue,” Godlewski said. “Based on what’s happened in the past.”
Godlewski also noted there are several ice cream stands in the town that more than serve the need.
Collis runs a fleet of 67 ice cream trucks that fan out as far as Syracuse and Plattsburgh. And it’s only Niskayuna and Rotterdam that ban them outright, he said.
Collis said safety is a priority for ice cream trucks, and flashing lights and swing-out caution signs have been standard since the early 1980s. Drivers watch training videos and take exams. They also receive direct training on safety, including instruction to check for traffic before handing children ice cream.
Collis was surprised to hear of the children’s efforts in Niskayuna, and said he would have joined them if he’d known they’d be at the meeting.
But he said he hears from others frequently.
“People call from Niskayuna all the time wondering why they can’t have a truck there,” Collis said. “I keep telling them to call the supervisor. That’s the only way to change law, with a public hearing and vote.”
Board member Julie McDonnell, whose son Brendan was among those to speak at the recent board meeting, said the issue and any safety concerns have to be looked at carefully. She also noted that there are ways of regulating the trucks, as Schenectady does. The possible trial run, she said, would include looks at noise generated by the trucks.
A trial run, McDonnell said, would allow the town not to rush into a full restoration.
“It will give us a chance to have our police closely monitor the situation and residents will have a chance to provide us feedback.”
Town officials are also looking at safety regulations from other municipalities and from the state.
Speaking to the board at the recent meeting, soon-to-be fourth-grader Julia LeBlanc gave her own safety suggestions, including allowing trucks to turn on the music only after they stop, and making a rule that cars can’t pass stopped ice cream trucks.
Classmate Brendan McDonnell argued for the convenience the ice cream trucks offer. Anyone who couldn’t go to the store for some ice cream would have an opportunity to get it, he said. “It comes right to you.”
The students decided to question the ban after seeing ice cream trucks in other communities. They posted the petition at school, after asking the principal, and collected some signatures by going door to door.
And while classmates overwhelmingly supported the change, it wasn’t unanimous, Julia LeBlanc recalled. One classmate opposed the proposal, she said.
“She thought they would come around at like 6:30 in the morning making that horrible music,” Julia recalled.
Beyond the issue of ice cream trucks, the students are getting a lesson in civic participation.
Alex’s mother, Barbara Burgess, said later she was a little worried at the start that her daughter might get some negative feedback, because not everyone is for ice cream trucks.
“I was a little nervous about that,” she said, “but I thought it was a very good experience for her to see government and how government can work.”