Unshoveled sidewalks can be costly
by Vickie Elmer
Every time it snows, Ann Arbor community standards supervisor Mike Rankin fields dozens of complaints about unshoveled sidewalks. His small staff then warns the property's owners that they're legally required to clear the walks-and tickets repeat offenders. In 2005-2007, community standards officers wrote 129 tickets totaling more than $13,000.
The worst offender in recent years, a closed gas station at 2891 Jackson Avenue, ran up $1,300 in fines for multiple violations in 2005. (It's since been remodeled to house Great Lakes Chocolate and Coffee Company, and is no longer a source of complaints.) A handful of others were billed $350 to $550 for repeat offenses-though none was hit with the maximum $1,000 fine allowed under the city code.
Sigma Nu, a fraternity at 700 Oxford, tied with the gas station as the city's most ticketed address, with four citations from 2004 to early 2008. (Emails to Sigma Nu were not returned by press time.) Also among the offenders: Theta Chi, at 1351 Washtenaw, and Kappa Sigma, at 806 Hill. Theta Chi president Matt Plonsker and Kappa Sigma president Adam DeSantis say their members are assigned to clear the sidewalks on a rotating schedule. "If it doesn't snow on your week, you get lucky," says DeSantis-but if it snows and the designated brothers don't shovel, they're responsible for paying any fines.
Three rental homes on South University belonging to the Evitt Company ran up $600 in fines in 2005. Evitt manager John Westerman says that the tenants signed leases obligating them to shovel the walks but didn't do it. Now, he says, "I just do it myself."
Westerman wonders whether the city is writing more snow removal tickets to boost revenue. But Rankin says most citations are issued because someone calls in to complain. He says he hears from a group of "regular spotters" who seem to patrol neighborhoods looking for "every house that hasn't cleaned off the snow."
One spotter, Linda Diane Feldt, says she started sending in complaints after she broke her ankle and had to navigate snowy sidewalks. "It was a terrifying experience," she says. She has emailed in "five, ten, fifteen addresses at a time while I'm out walking" on the west side and downtown. "Maybe it's my imagination," Feldt says, "but people who have been cited get the message and do a much better job" cleaning their sidewalks afterward.
[Originally published in February, 2009.]
On February 18, 2009, Bruce Laidlaw wrote:
You just have to walk around the City to see that the sidewalk snow removal system is broken. Many public sidewalks are almost impassible, surely impassible to people with disabilities. It is surprising the City hasn't been sued for its poor public sidewalk maintenance. Your story mentions two of the reasons the system is broken. There is no real enforcement except by complaints. Also, the City is completely hung up on warnings. In other words, everyone gets away with ignoring the law unless a citizen complains. Even then, there is only a warning.
Birmingham is an example of the opposite. It gives only one warning. It comes in the form of a newspaper announcement at the beginning of winter. Failure to heed the warning results in a citation issued by an inspector. The result is enormously different compliance. And there is less expensive time spent by city workers issuing all of the stupid warnings.
I also have to wonder whether the fines actually imposed are big enough to persuade a property owner to use one of the economical snow removal services available. I use a snow removal service that only costs about $85 a year. The fines don't seem to persuade repeat offenders to sign up with one of the services. The Observer mentioned that the prize winner for most citations was my old fraternity at 700 Oxford. I walked by the house yesterday and found no snow removal had occurred on the 220 feet of Hill Street frontage. It was an icy mess.
Here's what I suggest.
1. Stop all the warnings. Just one at the beginning of the winter. After that, citations.
2. Initially, use actual patrols. They could be seasonal workers. If the program works, they won't be needed long.
3. Impose fines that make a snow removal service an economical option.
4. A first offense fine could be $400 and a second offense $800. But the City could work with the court to reduce the payment to court costs upon receipt of evidence that the property owner had arranged for annual public sidewalk snow removal. (Ann Arbor Snow Removal, neighbor kid down the street, whatever)