Another winter, another season of slick sidewalks for Minneapolis pedestrians.
The city announced last fall a get-tougher policy for enforcing its longstanding but laxly enforced sidewalk snow-clearing ordinance. That did produce a sharply higher number of violation notices and bills to scofflaw property owners.
Violation notices were up 26% from the previous winter. They require an owner to shovel or pay the cost of having city-hired crews do it. The number of times an owner was billed for the cost of the city arranging for a crew to clear their walks was up 78%. The average bill was over $202.
Yet anyone who walks, jogs or pushes a wheelchair in the winter can testify that the stepped-up enforcement so far has made little dent in ground-level conditions. The same perennial offenders in my neighborhood left icy walks all winter.
Pedestrians often negotiated a gantlet of poorly shoveled or untouched walks as they trudged down a block. The law requires that a sidewalk be cleared of snow and ice. That means to the full width. Down to bare concrete. If property owners can’t remove snow or ice, they are required by ordinance to sprinkle sand. All this must happen within 24 hours of the cessation of falling snow at single-family or duplex properties; it’s four hours for all others.
This isn’t rocket science. If you’re in a hurry to get to work after an overnight snowfall, at least make a shovel-width pass down your walk, and finish the rest after work. That means you won’t need to battle compaction from the day’s pedestrians. If a big snow is forecast, consider shoveling once in the middle of it and again when it’s done, to lessen the workload. If an icy rain freezes on the walk, get out there on the first sunny day with your ice scraper. On my block, owners know when their neighbors are out of town and cover for them.
Too many property owners make a pass with a snowblower but leave a layer of a half-inch or more on the sidewalk that gets compacted into a layer of ice. Some don’t get to the snow soon enough so it’s trampled to an icy crust. That’s more treacherous than six inches of fresh snow.
So what should the city do? First, let’s quash the idea of having the city plow sidewalks. Plowing freshly fallen snow is an inexact matter, as anyone who has seen the scarred turf at the edges of paths around our Chain of Lakes can testify. It’s hard for a plow operator to follow a curving sidewalk obscured by a blanket of snow. It would take too long to get to all sidewalks, and by then the snow would be packed on walks to a crust that’s too difficult for a plow to remove consistently. City plowing also carries costs in the millions of dollars. And why should property owners who follow the law have to pay extra property taxes to subsidize property owners who don’t?
We should encourage recalcitrant shovelers to do their civic duty by increasing the upfront pain. In the past, it has taken up to three weeks for the city to close out a shoveling complaint. Either the property owner complied or the city eventually sent a crew and the cost was charged to the property. Three weeks is far too long, representing about a quarter of the time we’re typically blanketed with snow.
The city should annually remind property owners of their duty, like how it sent a notification last fall with utility bills. That puts every property owner on notice about the ordinance requirement. If an uncleared walk prompts a citizen complaint to 311 that’s found to be valid, or an inspector spots the unshoveled walk, immediately impose a relatively light first-offense fine of $25 or $50 to get the property owner’s attention. After all, an unshoveled walk is a petty misdemeanor under the ordinance. But also tell the owner that subsequent complaints that winter will automatically trigger the city sending a crew. If shoveling is needed, that cost will be billed to the property and, just as now, added to next year’s property tax if not paid.
It’s valid that not everyone is capable of wielding a shovel due to age or disability. But many blocks have a neighbor willing to help out. There are younger teens hungry to earn a few bucks, older teens needing to rack up community service hours their school requires and healthy retired guys like me. In much of Southwest, the TRUST coalition of churches will match property owners who need help with willing workers. Those workers are paid but some lower-income owners qualify for a sliding-fee basis. For those truly unable to pay, like income-qualified folks and some aged property owners on fixed incomes, the city could put a lien for each winter’s snow-clearing costs against the property and recover its costs when the property eventually is sold.
As you can tell, I’m sort of an absolutist on this issue. That comes from negotiating uncleared sidewalks on the way to the bus stop. It comes from trying unsuccessfully to push my late father in his wheelchair for a few blocks, only to be blocked by ridges of snow. It comes from almost 42 years of running sidewalks to get to a jog around the lakes.
I’m pretty good at staying on my feet, only tumbling once in several hundred miles on the run this past winter. But there have been lots of near falls. During a previous winter, when a landlord didn’t tend his walk, I went down on ice and nearly bonked my head, narrowly escaping a Christmas Day concussion. I’d like to not break an ankle and still be running in 20 years.
Often, the offenders are rented properties. Sometimes, they’re the well-off folks by the lakes who head south for the winter without engaging someone dependable to clear their walks.
But, folks, we’re all in this together. One of the responsibilities of being a property owner is to follow the rules and treat your neighbors with respect. If you can’t shovel your walk, or find someone who can, maybe you shouldn’t own a home.