Walkway watchdogs

A snowy season has meant plenty of work for the city’s sidewalk inspection team

As a daily walker, Sally Novotny has experienced firsthand the dangers this year’s snow and ice buildup has created on the city’s un-shoveled sidewalks.

“It’s been a little scary,” the 67-year-old retired Minneapolis teacher said after finishing a walk near her East Isles home with her wire-haired fox terrier, Sirius. “I just came off Irving [Avenue] and there’s one residence there where the ice has buckled and my nose was practically on the sidewalk.”

As a resident responsible for her own strip of sidewalk, she said she does her best to keep it clear, but this year’s heavy snow and temperatures fluctuating above and below freezing haven’t made it easy. “It’s been a super challenge,” she said.

For many residents, it’s been too much of a challenge, resulting in an influx of complaints from sidewalk users and a heavy workload for the city’s three-man sidewalk inspection team. City ordinance requires property owners to clear their sidewalks within 24 hours of the end of a snowfall. The rule is tighter for apartment and commercial buildings, which have to be cleared within four daylight hours after the snow stops.

Not clearing the snow could result in a warning letter from a sidewalk inspector, who will return a week later to see if the job is done. If it isn’t, the city will take care of it and charge the property owner the cost of time and materials, usually in the $80–$100 range.

From the start of the season through the first week in January, the sidewalk inspections office had responded to more than 2,000 complaints and was well on its way to passing last winter’s 6,000 total, said sidewalk inspections supervisor Dan Bauer. The department even called in some paving foremen to take on some of the inspections.

“We have so many that we’re kind of behind,” said sidewalk inspector Jim Glenn in early January after helping colleague Matt Hanan inspect a stretch of 27th Street between Dupont and Emerson avenues. “This morning I had 170 first inspections to get through and 200 second inspections.”

Hanan, who typically patrols Southwest, said the city was lenient with residents after the Christmas snowstorm and bitter cold that followed because salt wasn’t effective and shoveling was a major chore. But the recent warm up should make clearing snow easier, he said, so expectations are higher.  

“The conditions have been kind of difficult for people and that’s why we were trying to make some allowances,” Hanan said. “We’re not trying to be heavy handed, but at the same time people got to walk on the sidewalks, too.”

Hanan and Glenn said their job is almost entirely complaint driven, but if they spot un-shoveled sidewalks near an address they’re inspecting, they’ll cite those, too. Snow and ice on the sidewalk are obvious cause for a warning letter, but the inspectors also evaluate whether a resident is working on clearing the area.

On a block of sidewalk near 2700 Dupont Avenue, the sidewalk had been salted and the snow had turned to slush. The inspectors said the slush should be shoveled, but they gave the home a pass for the effort.

A residence at 2700 Emerson Avenue, where packed snow completely obscured the sidewalk, wasn’t so lucky. Hanan made a note in his portable computer to send a warning letter to the address.

John Amundson, a Kingfield resident who owns several rental properties including the one at 2700 Emerson that was cited, said his lease for that home requires tenants to shovel, but he gets the bill if they don’t. He said he once paid a fine of more than $100.

“The fine seems a little excessive and the notification is not ideal, for me at least, by mail,” Amundson said.

He said he’d like a quicker notification, so he has a better chance to get to the property and clear it before getting fined.

Glenn said inspectors sometimes knock on the doors of businesses or residences if they are obviously occupied, but they won’t take the time to go door-to-door during the workweek when most homes are empty. Confrontations with those getting cited are a rarity in person, but common over the phone, Glenn said.

He’s heard myriad excuses, from people being out of town, sick or no longer living in a cited residence. Foreclosed properties and rental units are some of the most frequent offenders. Most people are cooperative, though.

“In the winter time, people understand that ‘yeah, I’m supposed to shovel,’” Glenn said. “Although they get angry about the fact that, well, hey, some of the streets need to be a little cleaner.”

The City has been working on that, too, since the weather has warmed, said city spokesman Matt Laible.

Novotny, despite her troubles on the streets and sidewalks in her neighborhood, said she would rather have more snow and cold.

“I try to get it shoveled as soon as I can and I will make sure that it’s walkable because I’m a walker,” she said. “It doesn’t keep me from walking, but it does make me very careful about where I step.”

Reach Jake Weyer at 436-4367 or [email protected]

Avoid a fine

— Shovel all sidewalks surrounding your property, including the path from the sidewalk to the street, piling snow into your yard or boulevard. It is illegal to shovel into streets or alleys.  

— Find someone to shovel for you if you plan to be away from home.

— Sidewalk inspectors use the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration website, noaa.gov, to mark the end of a snowfall and start the countdown to violations. Homeowners have 24 hours from the end of a snowfall. Commercial building and apartment owners have four daylight hours, starting at 8 a.m.

— Salt is not effective under roughly 15 degrees. At warmer temperatures, inspectors recommend using it, except on sidewalks less than a year old because it could damage the surface.

— The city offers free salt and sand at several locations. A pail and shovel are needed for pickup. Call 673-5720 for locations and more information.

— More detailed information on snow shoveling is available at ci.minneapolis.mn.us/snow/snow-shoveling-rules.asp.