Restaurant rallies around longtime customer, 94, after wheelchair ramp fine

An Albany restaurant is raising funds for a longtime customer fighting Green County over a $160 fine because of a wheelchair ramp his family built for his ailing wife.

Howard Berra, 94, is a regular at the Edgewater Cafe. He stops in every morning for a cup of coffee and to chat with friends.

“He comes in every morning, faithfully at 8:00,” Nikki Schaitel, a waitress at the restaurant, said. “He makes everybody smile.”

Schaitel said co-workers and customers recently learned that Berra was fined by the Green County land use and zoning department for having a wheelchair ramp installed without a permit at his home, located just outside the village limits in the township of Albany. The ramp was built for Berra’s wife of nearly 74 years, Lois.

Lois Berra, 92, didn’t get much of a chance to use the wheelchair ramp. Soon after it was built, a fall sent her into the nursing home. Now, Berra said the bills make every penny count.

Schaitel said that motivated her to start a collection bucket to help Berra pay the fine.

“We got together and thought we could do a fundraiser kind of thing, so we got the money jar so we could raise the money,” Schaitel said. “Then just got more upset about it, it wasn’t even about the money anymore, it was about the principle.”

Berra admitted he did not get the required $80 permit to have the ramp built at his home, located in the town of Albany just outside the village limits. But Berra and his son Harley said they didn’t know they needed a permit just to build a wheelchair ramp, and they think the fine isn’t fair.

“I thought (a permit) was (for) a building,” Howard Berra said. “This ain’t a building.”

“I’d be more than willing to pay the $80, and they said no,” Harley Berra said. “That got under my skin a little bit and so I started talking and everybody said ‘go after it.'”

The Berras said if it comes down to it, they’ll tear down the ramp. Harley Berra said, however, that his father shouldn’t have to pay the fine as a matter of principle.

“(You) can’t do something with your own property to help your 92-year-old mother? It’s not right,” Harley Berra said. “The zoning commission should be a little more reasonable. This is America, I thought.”

Howard Berra said he’s hoping the issue can be resolved.

“We’re not real religious, but we do believe in God,” Howard Berra said. “I think, I really think that that helps get through this whole ordeal.”

Schaitel said the county needs to do what she believes is the right thing

“He’s lived here for over 50 years, he’s 94 years old, just cut the man a little bit of a break and do him right,” Schaitel said. “I just don’t think he’s being done very right right now.”

A letter from the zoning department, dated Jan. 30, said the Berras have until the end of March to tear down the ramp.

“Please remove your structure before March 30, 2017,” the letter said. “Failure to remove the structure before this date may lead to citations and/or other legal action.”

News 3 reached out to Green County Land Use & Zoning for comment early Friday afternoon. A phone call has not been returned as of Friday evening.