It’s no secret: Spokane’s sidewalks are a mess. Even after last week’s meltdown, miles of pedestrian pavement are buried under icy berms pushed up by snowplows.
The result is a walker’s nightmare, to the point where Spokane Public Schools Superintendent Nancy Stowell told parents last week that if kids had no choice but to walk through risky streets, then maybe they should stay home. The absence would be excused, she said.
Stowell reached the point of frustration after her district and others repeatedly urged the public to clear their sidewalks. Some obliged. But there’s no penalty for those who did not; local ordinances requiring the removal of snow from sidewalks are not enforced.
“There are so many miles of sidewalks that are not shoveled, we don’t have the resources to ticket everybody who is not doing so,” Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich said at a news conference last week.
Spokane Valley Mayor Rich Munson said earlier this month that it was too much to expect citizens to clear sidewalks buried under berms pushed aside by plows. “It’s a problem,” he told a Spokesman-Review reporter. “What are you going to do? There just isn’t any choice.”
During a news conference Wednesday, Spokane Mayor Mary Verner urged drivers to be especially cautious around pedestrians forced to walk in streets. Verner said tempers are so badly frayed that now is not the time to start holding landowners accountable for digging out sidewalks.
“You can imagine if citizens were frustrated enough to pull arms on snowplow drivers for berms, what would be their reaction if under these circumstances we tried to enforce the code requirement for sidewalk snow removal, especially as it’s come in such huge quantities and it’s become heavier and a lot of it is ice and a lot of it is the result of plowing,” Verner said. “So while we’ve been appealing to our citizens to do everything possible to remove the snow … we recognize that under these circumstances we simply can’t be heavy-handed about the code requirement.”
It was the same last winter, and for a long time before that. In 1969, city officials urged residents to clear their sidewalks, but admitted there’d be no penalty if they didn’t, according to a Spokesman-Review story from that year.
To which Dick Lippert says: “Why do you have an ordinance if you’re not going to enforce it?”
Lippert is the code enforcement manager for the Department of Safety and Inspections in St. Paul, Minn.
As in Spokane, the sidewalks in his city become the dumping ground for much of the snow pushed from city streets. Yet, St. Paul and other snowy cities aggressively enforce ordinances requiring snow removal, going so far as to require people who live on corners to shovel out the approaches to crosswalks. Like other cities, St. Paul offers help for elderly or infirm homeowners who can’t do the work, connecting them with volunteer groups or contractors, depending on what they can afford. But ultimately, those homeowners are required to get it done.
So far this winter, the city of St. Paul has sent letters to the owners and occupants of about 1,500 houses, letting them know that a citizen complaint has been filed. Forty-eight hours later, an inspector shows up. If the sidewalk isn’t clear, the city calls in a crew to do the work, billing the landowner for the cost – typically about $200. That’s happened hundreds of times this winter.
“We rarely have to do the same walk twice,” Lippert said.
Other snowy cities take similar steps. Some are more aggressive than others; Madison, Wis., for instance, sends out inspectors to look for scofflaws.
“When you live in Wisconsin all your life, you know you have to shovel,” said Karen Kuehne, an administrative clerk who answers the phone when residents call to complain about uncleared sidewalks.
Kuehne said snowy or icy sidewalks are the one thing in Madison that’s certain to bring a citation – about 3,000 of them in 2008. And a single shovel’s width isn’t enough; the path must be wide enough for two people to pass each other “comfortably.”
Other cities are more lax with enforcement.
The 11 community standards officers who work for the Ann Arbor, Mich., Police Department issue about 60 sidewalk citations in a typical winter – though only a couple so far this winter, said Mike Rankin, unit supervisor. Residents having trouble removing ice can take a five-gallon bucket to the city maintenance yard for a free fill-up with a sand/salt mixture.
“We are lenient of a property owner making a good-faith effort,” Rankin said. “Generally, we won’t hold them to the 24-hour deadline.”
Minneapolis handles things similarly, checking on sidewalks when someone calls a hot line to complain. After that first inspection, landowners have five days to remove the snow, after which the city does it for them. That’s happened 92 times so far this winter, in a city of nearly 400,000 people, said Minneapolis city spokesman Matt Laible.
The cost “starts at $50 for the first half an hour and goes up,” Laible said.
Salt Lake City sends out parking enforcement officers to check on citizen complaints. But they issue only a few dozen citations during a typical winter, said Rick Graham, director of public services.
“We tend to start with saying, ‘We want to make you aware of the ordinance; please take care of it,’ ” Graham said.
Montana’s biggest city has a complaint line. But other than that, Billings does relatively little to enforce its ordinance unless the uncleared sidewalk is along one of its “Safe Routes to School” or another critical area.
Billings residents are good about clearing sidewalks, said Nicole Cromwell, city enforcement supervisor. But another city employee, who formerly lived in Boston, called compliance “terrible” in the city he otherwise admires.
A different approach is taken in Bloomington, a Minneapolis suburb of about 88,000 people. City crews clear 250 miles of sidewalks using seven tractors that cut paths 50 inches wide – either with plows or blowers, depending on the situation. While they’re at it, the crews clear 33 outdoor ice-skating rinks and 550 cul de sacs.
Paul Edwardson, assistant maintenance supervisor for Bloomington’s public works department, said the effort is expensive, adding about $30 in property taxes for every homeowner. The crews often earn overtime and must be augmented by contractors following big storms. The tractors cost $50,000 to $90,000 apiece and rarely make it through a winter without breaking down.
Hoping to save taxpayers money, Edwardson once suggested to the city council that perhaps it was time to make Bloomington residents clear their own sidewalks.
That didn’t go over well.
“Our council doesn’t even want to think about indicating that this would be a good service to get rid of,” he said.
People who are used to clear sidewalks apparently don’t want to give them up.
Laible said that in Minneapolis, most violations are reported not by neighbors, but by people who are used to hoofing it to work and on errands.
“We have a pretty strong walking culture around here,” he said.
An alternative transportation advocacy group in St. Paul this year produced door-hangers – like the “do not disturb” signs in motels – that spell out the rules under a red headline reading, “24 Hours to shovel sidewalks.” Citizens can pick them up for free at city offices and hang them on doors anonymously, said Brady Clark, communications specialist for St. Paul Smart Trips.
In Ann Arbor, an affluent city that’s home to the University of Michigan, it’s socially unacceptable to ignore sidewalk snow. Residents pay high taxes and have high expectations, Rankin said. “They’re a pretty demanding clientele.”
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