Dear D.C. Council, Getting People to Clear Their Sidewalks Isn’t Hard

The D.C. Council is trying to figure out how to make people shovel their sidewalks after it snows. While this might seem ridiculous in D.C., it does snow here, and about half of city residents walk partially (mass transit) or entirely to work. So it matters. Apparently, however, there are challenges (boldface mine):

Over the last five years, various attempts have been made to change the law that requires residents and businesses to shovel their walks after a snowstorm. None have succeeded, despite the increasingly snowy winters that the city has dealt with in recent years. A new attempt this year looks more likely to succeed, but it still faces opposition.

The current law, which dates back to 1922, requires snow and ice to be cleared within eight daylight hours of the storm’s end. If that doesn’t happen, the city can clear the snow for the resident or business, then file a lawsuit to recover the costs of doing so.

But according to city officials, those lawsuits are rarely — if ever — filed. “This cumbersome and bureaucratic approach has led to zero enforcement,” says Council member Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3), who since 2009 has been trying to change the law to make it easier for the city to levy fines on non-shovelers….

Under her bill, which she introduced again this year, homeowners who fail to shovel away snow or ice within the eight-hour window would face a $25 fine for a first offense, $50 for a second and $100 for a third.

Fines would be steeper for businesses: $125 for a first offense, $250 for a second and $500 for a third. The Department of Public Works, Department of Transportation and Metropolitan Police Department would be empowered to issue tickets to violators…

But for Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), who has long opposed changes to the law, the issue is how to identify who owns a particular home, especially when many homes in the city are owned by LLCs and occupied by renters.

“I don’t think this law is going to work. We don’t know who the property owners are. Unless there is a very clear indication that tenants are not responsible and will not be subject to fines, there’s going to be a lot of confusion and anger,” Graham says.

The Ward 1 Council member also worries how residents will respond when they receive their first ticket for not shoveling their walks. “The angriest response I have ever received to a fine in the District of Columbia has been when someone has been given a fine for jaywalking. This will take this to new heights,” he says.

OK, first of all, if the city doesn’t know who the property owners are, then how the hell are they collecting property taxes on the residence or business? Second, once you identify the owner, there’s a simple way to get an out-of-state/absentee landlord respond: make the fine a lien on the property. Boston did that, and sidewalks that had never been shoveled for years suddenly were cleared.

It’s amazing what the ability to impair a landlord’s ability to get a loan will do.

Again, according to the Census, half of all D.C. workers’ commutes involve walking. Clearing your sidewalk is part of owning a home. You shouldn’t be allowed to externalize that cost to someone’s bruised ass (or worse) after he or she slips.

Update: By a vote of 7-6, the D.C. Council has voted in favor of snow shoveling legislation.

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1 Response to Dear D.C. Council, Getting People to Clear Their Sidewalks Isn’t Hard

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