Highway Superintendent Frederick J. Piasecki Jr. and the Town of Orchard Park

Laurie Mercer

There is a “buzz” these days in Orchard Park, and it’s not from the wood chippers and leaf vacuums that treat the streets with tender loving care. Fred Piasecki, highway superintendent, has about as many chores dedicated to grooming town streets and trees as he does to snow and wind. Also noteworthy, Orchard Park is most notably home to “The Ralph.” That’s what they call the Ralph Wilson Stadium, home of the Buffalo Bills. Fans routinely traverse state and county roads to get there, but town roads snaking through suburban neighborhoods remain the favored back door for making up time going to and from the game.

Ironically Fred himself lives on Bussendorfer Road, one of those side routes favored in using this approach so he understands better than most people how massive sports events can affect traffic and road wear. On a game day he estimates about 75,000 people in trucks, buses, and any type of vehicle imaginable will descend upon and then depart Orchard Park en masse. Always good-natured, he jokes that his daughter Sarah, with Piasecki for a last name and living on Bussendorfer Road, helped her learn her alphabet in a hurry.

The town highway department has a budget of $3.8 million with $154,000 coming from CHIPS. They have 200 lane miles, and 15 parks featuring a multitude of premier playing fields for football, baseball and soccer. They mow right of ways and many collection ponds. This time of year, besides mounting snowplows, there is a seasonal push to capture every leaf in town and every broken branch and turn them into every gardener and landscaper’s friends — compost and mulch.

During the past five years, Orchard Park has demonstrated how leaves and brush can produce income. In addition it saves space in a landfill. For landscaping and gardening of all types, there’s nothing better for growing conditions than compost and mulch.

Orchard Park covers an area of 38.6 miles. To care for the town, Fred has a crew of 27 people in highway and 15 in parks and grounds. Ernie Matthews is the deputy highway superintendent. The three crew chiefs are Mike Delia, Mike Carey and Jeff Smith. He has a crew of two (one seasonal) to run the compost facility. He likes to call himself “The King of Compost.”

“We never have too much material here,” he said. “In one of the worst storms ever in 2006 we helped our neighboring towns get rid of their brush. Towns around us were hit so badly that they had run out of places to store the trees and branches that covered their towns as they tried to restore power. I bet Hamburg had half of their brush brought here. We were happy to help out. We have that kind of capacity, manpower and equipment.”

Orchard Park — The Name Still Works

Long ago Orchard Park earned its name when a visitor said that the area looked like a park of orchards. The allusion still works. The town has 15 parks and its own town arborist, which may account for the healthy, well-manicured look of suburban streets canopied with trees. Each new home gets another new tree, one of several varieties, planted. Given upstate wind storms and ice storms, the resulting wood brush and leaves once posed a problem to the town, which even named a park after a prominent brush pile gone to grass — Brush Mountain Park. Thanks to some forward “green thinking” by the town board, all wood is now collected and chipped, all leaves are vacuumed. The sign says, “Compost Site and Sports Park,” which may sound like an odd juxtaposition, but it works well here. The town’s compost/mulch facility shares a large landmass with the town’s premier soccer grounds nearby.

Even the town’s playgrounds are more than 10 acres and can have handicapped accessible nature trails through woods and over bogs, tennis courts, basketball courts, sand volleyball courts, and clubhouses. Winter brings sledding, snowmobiling, and cross-country skiing, keeping the parks well used.

In addition to snow removal, highway work in Orchard Park focuses a lot on keeping the town looking park-like. Yates Park, with 60 acres, has a large lake of several acres. The lake and grounds were donated by a prominent resident, Harry Yates, who owned nearly 3,500 acres in the town during his lifetime. Many of the parks offer athletic opportunities. Yates has a 90-ft. bocce courts, swimming area, paddleboat rentals, and a splash pad for kids. Pagodas with wonderful backdrops and views in some parks have become so popular as a wedding photographer’s destination that Fred said in season you can see stretch limousines backed up there.

Wiry and energetic, Fred is proud of the long-running green initiatives under his direction that have always made this an especially attractive community, including 15 parks, a solar heated highway garage, and a two-person operation devoted to the magical transformation of stuff — wood and leaves — into valuable, earth-enhancing mulch and compost for Orchard Park residents.

New Pulse for

Old-Time Buffalo

Orchard Park, home of the Buffalo Bills, has many acres of park land devoted to top-end athletic facilities and carefully tended fields devoted to football (one brand new stadium has lights), baseball diamonds, top-of-the-line multiple soccer fields, and sand volleyball courts. The highway crew has had a lot to do with the creation and maintenance of these outstanding, for a town its size, outdoor, community-enhancing facilities. The larger ones even have concession stands for things like Little League events.

“There is a new buzz in town,” said Fred. “And it’s not limited to sports but western New York as a whole because there are a lot of great things going on.”

“The City of Buffalo is in a rejuvenation phase. The old smokestacks are gone. We have this medical corridor. There is tremendous energy. We are very excited about it here.”

He said while new residential development is steady at about 100 new homes annually, the town of Orchard Park is notorious for strict zoning codes, including mandating larger than traditional cul-de-sacs. The area, while residential with plenty of remaining open land, remains true to its name. The highway crew plants trees in a setback on all roads in the new developments, adding to the abundance of leaves.

Fred said a tight budget directs everything, which is why, in part, the highway headquarters and garage has a solar powered roof and why mountains of wood chips and leaves become income producing mulch and compost. Being a tree-heavy town, much of the equipment is in almost constant use with leaf vacuums and wood chippers. The equipment list has 34 trucks on it — 10 dump trucks with snowplows alone. Water, sewer and vac-all trucks keep water moving easily. Other equipment, 8- and 4-ton rollers, chippers, and backhoes, are used everywhere while the 6500 Morbark grinder, Wildcat turner, and two skid steers are positioned for use at the compost facility.

Without any fixed schedule, crews clean up brush and vacuum leaves as soon as they appear in neat piles curbside.

Fred knows the patterns of leaves falling to the ground and watches them probably more intently than most of us. Frank Sinatra’s “Autumn Leaves” is probably not one of his favorite tunes. “Sometimes,” he said glancing out the window of his office, “it’s gradual. Sometimes they just dump all at once.”

It’s just leaves, but in a town like Orchard Park, Fred said leaves clog drains, they freeze, and can cause flooding, and they make driving more hazardous because wet leaves are slippery.

Gus Is Back

Orchard Park’s pulse point clearly is the Buffalo Bills, and the highway department has its own way of showing support. They call him Gus. Carefully created by the crew from rebar and other recycled materials, Gus is hung with Christmas lights in the Bills’ tri-colors and comes out when the team is doing well as he shares his enthusiasm with thousands of drivers along Route 219. It’s no surprise to football fans that Gus has been in storage since 1993, but all that has changed this year.

“Gus is back again, all lit up,” Fred said. In the highway barn it’s like talking about another highway guy. Gus is big. He was built back when the Bills went on to play unsuccessfully in four Super Bowls. In today’s more optimistic upstate what’s not to love about a lit up Gus along the thoroughfare that borders Gus’s highway barn? Extreme sports fandom is a funny thing. The Bills’ strength is channeled both to and from the community, even if you’re not a fan.

As for the Bills, the team was briefly orphaned when their founder and leader Ralph Wilson passed away last year. The often sold-out stadium called The Ralph has hit its stride with new owners Terry and Kim Pagula, who also own the Buffalo Sabres. Being especially civic minded, the couple is a welcome addition; Terry comes from Orchard Park. The stadium itself embraced this season, enhanced with a $130 million renovation. Critics point out that it remains an open stadium in a notoriously inhospitable climate.

“They (the Pagulas) didn’t have to do any of this,” he said. “They were at the right place at the right time for this community.”

There were rumors that the Bills might be sold to a Canadian entity or Donald Trump, so a sense of relief prevailed when, under new, local owners, the Bills began to win again.

Addressing snarling traffic jams and bottlenecks caused by big games as well as an inclination for fans to party in the parking lot post game, the town just instituted a new policy. Now police can quickly vacate the premises by turning a formerly two-lane road into a one-way thoroughfare just an hour before the game ends and a few hours after the last score. Fred says residents are notified of the traffic pattern changes via a Code Red system, just installed, that basically lets a municipality advise its residents when something of import is about to take place in their community.

The Snow Belt Is Tighter Than Ever

“We go for bare roads with some exceptions,” said Fred. “We do a good job removing snow in this town. The south end of town seems to get bigger snowfalls but not always.”

He said you can drive in and out of snowstorms repeatedly, and the town gets about 100 inches of snow annually. Weather predicting is mostly done with apps on Fred’s phone. The police are another good source. In his office he has a wide screen to monitor larger events. “Knowing what might be forthcoming with a tremendous temperature drop, we sometimes do a pre-salt.”

The salt storage barn at headquarters holds 3,500 tons when full. The town used 5,800 tons of salt last year. Mounted after 9/11, one of the biggest American flags in a city known for flags flies from the top of the salt barn.

Last year the snow was so heavy it shut down Route 219 and closed the town of Orchard Park for a couple of days. Fred said they were plowing around the clock. “Emergency status on 219, that’s unusual. What prompted all this was high winds, the visibility was zero and trees were coming down.”

The town’s 10 plow trucks run with wingmen even though the county and state highway departments no longer use them. “I’ve got turnarounds, cul-de-sacs, multiple subdivisions, and dead ends. There is a different complexity in the roads we plow.”

Each of nine routes takes about four hours to complete.

All equipment is kept inside, including a new $160,000 International 7400 Workstar, a dump/plow truck. Fred likes standardizing with Internationals, which are always on the state bidding list, he said. Repairs, parts, and the expense to pay for computer diagnostic downloads are more cost efficient with one manufacturer.

Ahead of the Curve

The Orchard Park highway facility was built in 1959. It has 12 enormous bays for trucks and a big shop area with two full-time skilled mechanics. There is plenty of open land in addition to the salt storage.

“We use pure salt with the exception of very cold temperatures, when I will go with a blended mix of salt and sand. In severe temperatures the grit in sand will help to break that up and give us traction.”

He said that especially with plow trucks, they try and observe a policy of cycling equipment. He says 12 to 13 years of use is about average.

“There comes a point where you have to ask how much more money you want to put into a truck.”

He has a reserve in his budget for emergency needs. He sits in on the weekly town board working meeting on Wednesdays, even though he doesn’t have to be there. His reason has to do with the oath of office he took and his determination to be in touch with the town he serves on all of its many levels, not just roads and parks.

The town is an early adapter to many innovations and ideas that enhance the community and the residents’ quality of life.

“In terms of green initiatives, we are very proactive in the highway department. I believe we were the first highway department in the state to have a solar powered system. There are 704, 3 x 4-foot solar panels on the roof of this facility. They were installed five years ago.”

He said he read an article about a program launched by NYSERDA. While the true cost would have been about $250,000, the work in Orchard Park was funded entirely by a grant. Fred estimates the savings in electric to have been about $23,000 during the past five years.

“One uniqueness is that I don’t have any battery storage. What we need is coming in, but when I overproduce it goes back out. He says NYSERDA spent one entire day investigating whether or not the highway garage was a suitable location. The energy provider inspects the grid each spring and replaces any panel that has defects.”

Hybrid Dump Trucks

In keeping with the green theme, Orchard Park has also had a fleet of hybrid dump trucks for five years.

“I did some research at a local trade show,” said Fred. “These are International, coupled with Eaton Industries, who provide the hybrid part of the vehicle. While the driver notices no difference in operation, these dump trucks are hybrid in the purest sense because the rotation of the axle charges the battery. It drives on diesel, then the battery kicks in, and you are off and running using battery power. So you don’t have to plug them in. We’ve probably saved $30,000 in diesel fuel in the past few seasons.”

His department also is responsible for meeting the fuel needs of the entire municipality, which means millions of gallons of gasoline and diesel being pumped by the station near the highway garage for school buses, law enforcement cruisers, and other town official vehicles.

Brush Mountain Park

Orchard Park is heavily arbored. In time the amount of waste material deposited in a town park led to a small, stable hill that is now grassed over. They call it Brush Mountain even though it’s really just a big hill. Several years ago the oddity of a mountain made from brush attracted the attention of two Orchard Park board members who wanted to find alternatives to town garbage disposal in general. He said Councilwoman Nan Ackerman and Town Engineer Mike Merritt were pathfinders in searching for more environmentally sound solutions for waste without adding to the residents’ tax burden. Brush Mountain would eventually run out of room; then what would they do?

“We were already one of the first towns to institute recycling bins where residents were asked for the first time to separate garbage and recyclables, including plastic, bottles, aluminum, clear glass, and later colored glass.”

Fred said the compost facility reduces transportation and eliminates tipping fees while the renewable materials help generate revenue. Clever minds at the town level addressed their brush and leaf situation.

“Amherst was first to take advantage of a state program to help build a compost and mulch facility, using town wood and leaves. We were right after them.”

Amherst eventually sold their operation to an outside contractor. In Orchard Park two employees are dozing, raking, shaping, and taking the temperature (about 130 to 170 degrees) while clean materials quickly become valuable mulch. Wood chips, leaves, water, and air — that is the entire recipe. No organic waste, which would rot, no grass, which is heavily imbedded with chemicals of all kinds, and no construction materials are allowed.

The site is inspected by the DEC twice a year and has never gotten less than an A-plus rating. Here’s how it works: A fleet of trucks continually vacuums up leaves around the town until all the foliage is on the ground. Fred said leaves can fall many different ways, from slow to a total dumping. However as they sail to earth, the highway crew is on them because, “We need to get them out of the drainage system and off the roads. Along with raining and freezing, excessive leaves can cause flooding.”

Residents rake leaves into neat piles; they do not use bags. He describes composting as “pretty simple but there is a science to it.”

Becoming a

Learning Center

The town’s downed trees and brush also are chipped at the facility and constructed in long windrows, just like the leaves. Specialized rakes turn the piles of degrading materials until it becomes mulch, if it has bark and wood, and its finer cousin — compost, if it originates as leaves. So many visitors from Scouts to garden club members have toured that Fred can easily call it something unusual in the highway department environment and that it has accidentally evolved to become a learning center.

“The key element is that when we are picking up leaves we are getting clean materials. Same with brush,” he said. “One of the biggest savings to the town is that we have this compost facility. If we had to dispose of all the brush and leaves in this town every year, you could easily be looking at half a million dollars to take it all to the dump, not to mention the environment price tag. I’m really proud to be part of what they have done here. Our residents are really into the program. Our sales are very good.”

Residents pay a special rate of $15 a cu. yd. Non-residents pay $23. In addition to enriching the earth, mulch and compost have brought in more than $100,000 in the past four to five years.

The village of Orchard Park now pays a tipping fee to the town to remove village-based brush as well. He said the close working relationship with village is curiously reflected in Forest Drive Bridge. Forest Drive Bridge is a village bridge that the town crew maintains because of the bridge’s length.

“We work hand in hand,” said Fred. Village and town officials in this municipality of about 27,000 share office space.

The compost and mulch facility shares space with the sports complex facility, with seven top-tier soccer playing fields that are sodded and maintained by their own dedicated crew. Fred called the soccer fields “high maintenance,” adding, “You cannot let those fields burn. These are the premier soccer fields in western New York.”

The 75-acre Brush Mountain Park, in addition to the composting and mulching operation, has four baseball diamonds and three football fields (including a new football field with lights). Fred said the highway crew created the football field from kick-off to touchdown, contracting only for the electrical engineering on the lights.

“We built the field. We set the poles for the lights. We graded the parking lot. I have a very diverse and talented group of employees. They thrive on doing things like this. It also really helps us out to have a town engineer on board.”

Doing Their Own Heavy Lifting

Like a lot of supervisors, Fred said his crew is the best one in the area of western New York. And he backs it up with six words: We do our own road construction.

“Every year we do our own total reconstruction from A to Z. We tear out the existing road. Put in new drainage. New sub base, new black asphalt, the curbs, and the concrete. We bring the road up to standards.”

They rate the roads from one to 10 based on observation, but with one bad winter, “the ratings can change drastically.” He said these total rebuilds add up to a couple of miles annually.

“We also do a lot of milling and overlaying. Maybe five to eight miles a year to extend the life of the road. Experiments with micropaving have proven to be positive. We take an existing road and patch it, crack seal it, and then put a half inch to three-quarters of an inch of coating. By doing so you can pick up another four to five years on that road. With tight budgets that helps a lot. Micropaving can buy you some time in what you have to do and when you can get to work on it.”

Getting Things

Done the

Old-Fashioned Way

“We don’t have an answering machine, and the reason why is we need to talk to the people,” said Fred.

He doesn’t have a secretary, but his deputy, Ernie Matthews, is indispensable. When the phone rings at highway headquarters, it gets answered. He thinks that is very important because, “We have county roads, and state roads, and our roads are all over the place here. We need to be able to talk to people to find out exactly where the problem is. Is it our road? For example, this South Taylor Road where the highway garage is located; it forks to become Taylor Road to the left and New Taylor to the right — both are county roads in horrendous shape so we get a lot of calls about them.”

Glad to Come

to Work

“Cathy, my wife, refers to this as my museum,” he said as he gestured to the many awards and media clips that adorn his large office as well as the usual maps of the town you expect to see. His daughter’s photo is right by the computer screen. He was born in Buffalo but grew up in a suburb called Elma.

“My wife and I married and we decided we liked Orchard Park so much we bought a home here 30 years ago.”

The initial hit from the big storm of 2006 happened to coincide with his anniversary dinner, which was cut short. Power was out for days.

“She told me then, ‘you’ll owe me,’ and I’m still paying for it.”

Daughter Sarah is completing a graduate degree from Mercyherst College in Erie. He jokes that he and his wife look forward to having a healthcare professional in the family.

“I’ve got two women who look out for me. They have to put up with a lot in this environment, including late night, winter phone calls.”

Fred came from the private sector. A graduate of Conesus College, he studied business administration and upon graduation began in construction mostly as a project manager and often worked on roads including the third section of the 219 expressway.

In May 2005 he was appointed highway superintendent, taking over for the retiring superintendent who had nearly 30 years in the job.

“I jumped at the opportunity to work in my community. Being in road construction, it was a great fit.”

His is an elected position, and he is now in his third, four-year term. He gives credit to his wife, who drives him around neighborhoods when it comes campaign time. In spite of the footwork, he is in favor of elections for highway superintendent.

“Without question the position has to be elected,” Fred said.

Conversely the highway superintendent for the village is appointed and works under strict direction of the mayor. In contrast, Fred said he can work somewhat independently.

“When I took my oath of office I promised to keep the infrastructure of the town to reflect the best of my abilities and of the crew. We try to improve all the time.”

Fred is currently president of the Town Superintendent’s Association, which encompasses 25 towns in western New York. He credits his committee with developing a template for a formal agreement for any shared services between towns. The document formally recognizes shared services agreements for labor and equipment between towns — cooperation that once was done with a handshake. Insurance companies don’t go for the handshake.

“We are all trying to be cost effective, especially smaller towns. Shared services can go a long way in helping towns stretch their budgets. One of my goals as president of the association was to get a formal agreement written.”

One award ceremony he especially enjoyed came in 2010 when he accepted the Hot Mix Asphalt Showcase Award for his department’s work on Ellis Road.

“This was very unusual in that the road was put in years ago with a 60-inch water line right down the center of it. This was an older water line and we were putting a total reconstruction over it, so we had to work with lifts.”

The routine use of vibration rollers would have threatened the water pipe. Instead Fred describes a long sequence of rolling and lifting to achieve the correct compaction.

“Paving wise it was one of our best productions with 1,000 tons of paving material used each day. They had a nice ceremony. It was gratifying. I have loved every minute of this job.”

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