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Wednesday, Dec. 29, 2010 02:46 pm

‘Honey, where’s the snowshoes?’

Who should clear the sidewalks when it snows?



Every winter, when the snowflakes begin to fall, I would love to bring tidings of good cheer to my fellow townspeople but I can’t, because so many of their sidewalks are buried under snow. As the city of Ann Arbor, Mich., reminds its citizens, “Clearing snow and ice from sidewalks should simply be looked upon as a combination of courtesy and caring toward all those who need to use the public walkways.” Should be, but ain’t. We willingly hold open a door for a stranger but will not lift a shovel for him.

There are the virtuous among us who do the walks for the old lady next door and make certain that the mail carrier does not have to risk going on disability to get their Victoria Secrets catalogs into their mailboxes. In days past, their example might have shamed the rest of the block into action, but the peculiar legal status of sidewalks subverts public spiritedness. Many property owners resent having to grant the public access to their property via the city’s right-of-way and so resist maintaining the sidewalks that provide that access. To them, a snow-clearing ordinance is merely a property tax paid in sweat instead of gold.

To those who are resentful we must add those who are confused. Lawyers trolling for cases are quick to excite people who slip on a slippery walk to file a negligence claim  against the property owner. The City of Champaign, in its helpful FAQ on snow removal, offers a calmer opinion: “The weight of legal authority indicates that the [typical snow removal] ordinance itself imposes no additional civil liability on individuals for shoveling snow.” Indeed, home insurance policies endorse the concept of the homeowner’s “duty of care” to keep sidewalks safe for passersby.

Clearing walks is legally required in any event. The Springfield City Code, 99.03, states that occupants as well as owners are obliged to “clear the sidewalks in front of or adjoining such premises, from snow and ice” by 10 a.m. and  keep them clear or (if the snow is “congealed”) to spread ashes, sand, or sawdust on them to make them walkable.

You could look it up.

No doubt the City turns a blind eye to violations because enforcing it would be onerous on the elderly, who can’t clear their walks, and the poor, who can’t afford to pay someone to do it for them. More to the point, it also would be onerous on aldermen, who fear being buried by a blizzard of votes from citizens angry at being made to clear walks against their will.

There is another way. Bloomington, Minn., treats its sidewalks as part of the city’s transportation system, and removes snow from all 250 miles-plus of them. This is expensive at $150,000 a season, or $600 a mile. But making citizens who must use the sidewalks bear in inconvenience the expense of not clearing walks is unfair.

There is room for compromise. Not all walks need the same level of attention. A sensible policy would mimic Bloomington’s in setting priorities based on likely foot traffic and the proximity of schools and shops and bus stops to determine in which order, indeed even whether, a particular block will be cleared.

I have heard it said that it is unnecessary to clear the sidewalks of snow because no one walks during the winter. Of course they don’t; the sidewalks are clogged with snow. For every person whose tracks appear in the drifts there are probably a dozen others who would have passed by had they not had to play Admiral Byrd.

It shouldn’t be necessary to bring along crampons and ice tools when one goes out to buy a loaf of bread. The City should either enforce its own ordinance requiring property owners to do the job or use tax money to do it for them. Safety and energy conservation and, dare I say it, good municipal manners require it. Until the city council does one or the other, Springfieldians who walk will be abandoned to the sympathies of their fellow townspeople. As a spokesman for Chicago’s Department of Streets and Sanitation said not long ago about that city’s perennial snow removal disputes, “You raise the possibility of having tension with your neighbors, which is no way to live.”

Contact James Krohe Jr. at peptobiz@mindspring.com.

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