Shoveling Our Sidewalks; Whose Job Is It Anyway?

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By Bill Palladino

Traverse City needs to clearly state the intentions of its snow removal ordinance for city streets, trails and sidewalks. Once clarified, and communicated effectively throughout the city, it needs to commit to enforcement so that these vital public thoroughfares are accessible and safe for all its citizens.  This is especially critical for the city’s more than 73 miles of sidewalks. Today, the city is mired in a self-induced slushy mix of messages regarding who bears responsibility for clearing sidewalks. This confusion often leaves much of our sidewalk infrastructure impassable for days on end after a storm, even in the heart of downtown.

I’m a relatively mobile man, but when I walk around Traverse City during the winter months, I find myself imagining what it must be like for people with disabilities or other mobility issues. It doesn’t take long to find disheartening examples either. I have several friends downtown that are wheelchair bound.  I know many others who are aged, walk with a cane or suffer from injuries. The few inches of snow and ice that might be a minor inconvenience to me are game-changers for them.

Last winter I had to push a person in a heavy motorized wheelchair through piles of snow in a crosswalk because they’d gotten stuck crossing the street. It was humiliating for this person, and horribly unsafe. On many more occasions, I’ve been appalled and embarrassed to see people in wheelchairs forced to ride in a traffic lane because the sidewalk was impassable. We can do better Traverse City!

ANOTHER PERSPECTIVE:

In the 80s, I lived in a community that by right knows something about managing winter snowfall. Minneapolis, Minnesota ranks as one of the coldest and snowiest cities I’ve lived in. Here, crippling cold and massive snowfall could shut the city down.  It was serious business and this seriousness applied to how they managed highways, streets, alleys, trails and sidewalks.

Minneapolis had and still maintains a very strict and concise policy on snow removal. As a homeowner there, I learned the lesson quickly that I had 24 hours to shovel my sidewalk or risk a fine from the city. In fact, even the system for purveying fines there was elegant. If you got an infraction, there was no ticket delivered to your door; you simply got $25 or $50 tacked onto your water bill. Choose not to pay it and it would show up on your property tax bill.

The clarity and absoluteness of this doctrine helped a city of over a million people survive the brutish nature of Great Plains winters with its famed Minnesotan niceness ever intact.

When you look up “snow removal” on the City of Minneapolis website you see the following statement that clearly reflects the language and intent of the underlying ordinance it supports.

“Minneapolis Ordinance requires that property owners clear sidewalks after the end of a snowfall within

  •    24 hours for single family homes and duplexes
  •    Four daytime hours for apartments, commercial buildings and all other properties (daytime hours begin at 8 am)

When you shovel snow and clear ice

  •    Shovel the sidewalks on all sides of your property, the full width of the sidewalk down to the bare pavement.
  •    Remove all ice from sidewalks.”

The page goes on to describe what the consequences are for not following the ordinance.

“If the City of Minneapolis gets a complaint or discovers that a sidewalk is not properly cleared, Public Works will inspect the sidewalk and give the property owners a chance to clear it.

  •    If the sidewalk has not been cleared upon re-inspection, the property owner may be issued a citation with a fine, and crews will remove the snow and ice from the sidewalk. Property owners will be billed for this service, and unpaid bills will be added to property tax statements.”

As a homeowner and business owner in Minneapolis there was never a question as to whose job it was to shovel the walk. To paraphrase the old cartoon character Pogo, “We have met the shovel, and the shovel is us!”

THE CAUSE OF OUR PAIN:

Now let’s look at Traverse City.  Ask any two people in town whom they think is responsible for clearing snow from city sidewalks, and you’ll likely hear two distinctly conflicting answers. One might say, “it’s the city’s job, we pay taxes for that service just like the streets.”  And the other might say, “It’s the property owner’s job, why don’t they just get out and do it?”

If you’re lucky enough to ask a city commissioner or municipal employee the same question, you might get this response, “According to the ordinance, it’s clearly the responsibility of the occupant or the property owner, we just don’t enforce it.”

To understand where all this confusion comes from, you need to look no further than the City’s website. Here’s the introductory page regarding snow removal.

“Crews directed by the City’s Street Superintendent are responsible for clearing winter’s snow from over 8 miles of State trunk line, 83 miles of City streets and over 73 miles of City sidewalk.  Careful consideration has been given to prioritizing the snow removal effort.”

In an honest attempt to tell the story of our hard-working municipal employees, they’ve obfuscated the intent of the law. Look at the actual ordinance (buried deep within Chapter 668.11) and the language clearly suggests the opposite intent.

“The removal of snow and ice from private property and the sidewalk abutting or crossing private property shall be the responsibility of the occupant of such private property. However, if there is no occupant or if the occupant cannot be determined due to multiple occupancy of the property, then the responsibility shall be the owners of such private property.“

I agree with this ordinance and as a property owner in downtown have no problem with shoveling my walk or those of my neighbors. I consider it a simple act that is part of my responsibility living in such a beautiful place.  And like the occasional parking ticket, I’d still regrettably put a check in the mail to cover the costs of my forgetfulness. Maybe next time, I’d be encouraged to remember.

SOME POSSIBLE SOLUTIONS:

What are we as mere citizens to do?

  1. We should demand the city clearly communicate its snow removal ordinance to the entire populace.
  2. We should firmly suggest to the City that it enforce the ordinance it has in place. (If they treat this ordinance like the parking system, snowfall could be a significant job-creator and money-maker!)
  3. We should celebrate the occupants and property owners that already do a good job of clearing the snow. (Let’s hand out the Golden Snow-Shovel award!)
  4. We should start knocking on the doors of responsible parties and convince them to get the job done for the sake of the community.
  5. We should continue our successful Traverse City Great Shovel Experiment, expanding it to include more volunteers who can adopt sidewalks and crossings around the city.
  6. We should ask city residents in advance of the winter if they need assistance shoveling… and then adopt those sidewalks.
  7. We should all put ourselves in the shoes of those with mobility issues as we walk our streets.
  8. We should take a greater sense of pride in what our city represents and demand that the quality of streets and sidewalks equate to all the “best of” accolades bestowed on the city every year.

OUR COMMON RESPONSIBILITY:

Our sidewalks are part of what we know as “the commons.” These are the places in our community that by right of use belong to all of us; like the Open Space, our beaches, parks, rivers, and even our streets and alleys. It is our job as citizens to recognize the responsibility we have to make sure our commons are available for everyone to use, while being free, accessible and safe.

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Bill Palladino is CEO at Taste The Local Difference, Midtown resident, dad to Sam and Tula, husband to Jen, super bread baker, walk/bike nerd and shovel champion. You can contact him at bill@localdifference.org.



Passionate about a more walkable, bikable, livable Traverse City? Get involved with our pro walk/pro bike advocacy grupo HERE.

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