Greater Greater Washington

Councilmembers who rarely walk block shoveling bill

8 DC councilmembers tabled a bill this afternoon to enforce DC's law requiring shoveling sidewalks. This means that, for the umpteenth time, DC is doing nothing about the serious safety problem of unshoveled sidewalks after a snowstorm.


Photo by randomduck on Flickr.

Only bill authors Mary Cheh (ward 3) and Tommy Wells (ward 6), joined by David Catania (at-large) and Chairman Kwame Brown, voted against tabling the bill. Phil Mendelson (at-large) sounded like he favored the bill during the debate, but supported the tabling.

Listening to the debate, it was clear that many councilmembers just don't think there is a problem. Marion Barry (ward 8) said he has gotten few or no complaints about unshoveled sidewalks. Muriel Bowser (ward 4) spoke passionately multiple times about the burden on anyone for getting a ticket but said nothing about her residents' ability to walk to stores and the Metro.

Jim Graham also argued against enforcing this law, even though, as Mike DeBonis noted, he represents the (residentially) densest ward in DC. He introduced an amendment that would have restricted fines to only apply on streets which have already been plowed. One of the bill's supporters called the amendment a "poison pill." That sends the ironic message that if drivers can't get through a street, it's not important that pedestrians be able to either.

Kwame Brown, who did support the bill but also supported Graham's amendment, made the amusing comment that Mayor Gray has done a good job with snow clearance this year. We've had only 1.7" of snow this year, compared to an annual average average through January of 8.4" and the lowest in 124 years.

Graham insisted that he wants to do something about shoveling; he just wants to use incentives rather than fines. But he's never given a practical incentive-based proposal.

Many councilmembers opining on this issue would have more credibility if they actually walked to transit to get to work in a snow, or for that matter any other time.

During the years he chaired the council's transportation committee and sat on the WMATA Board, Graham came under periodic criticism for very rarely riding transit. He stuck up for low bus fares, but never addressed the problem of unsafe sidewalks after storm. Graham even bragged during today's debate about not moving bills like this one during his tenure as chairman.

Large numbers of DC residents have to get to work or school on foot and on transit after snowstorms, and unshoveled areas create serious safety hazards. Sidewalks are often completely impassable for people with disabilities or even just temporary injuries.

DC already has a law that residents and businesses have to clear their sidewalks, but it's not enforceable. The government has clear the sidewalk and then sue individual violators to collect up to $25. This bill simply makes the penalty for violating this law a straightforward ticket and fine, just like in most cities including Arlington, Alexandria and Montgomery County.

Cheh made many changes to the bill during the last few months to cut the fines even further from the original proposal, put in exemptions for poor and elderly residents, and more. Property owners get a warning before having to pay any fine until the end of 2013.

It's not clear if this law does enough to push the egregious violators, like the large parking lot in Mount Vernon Triangle, to actually take any action, but a majority of councilmembers have made clear that they don't really care to do anything about those problems.

The bill wouldn't have even taken effect until next winter. Now, we're likely to have to wait until yet another winter. If we get a real snow this year, will the councilmembers who voted to table this bill today try walking their neighborhoods and getting to work on foot or by transit? If they did, they'd very likely look at this issue very differently.

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David Alpert is the founder and editor-in-chief of Greater Greater Washington. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He now lives with his wife and daughter in Dupont Circle. 

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So long as Graham's VW can get down to Busboys & Poets...

by @SamuelMoore on Feb 7, 2012 1:35 pm • linkreport

The most egregious violators are DC and NPS. How about the Council focuses on getting the city to shovel its own sidewalks and to work out some arrangement so that NPS sidewalks are shoveled before it starts imposing fines on residents for not doing so?

by ah on Feb 7, 2012 1:39 pm • linkreport

Muriel, you don't speak for me. Maybe I'm just the weird old grumpy guy but I shovel my walk and expect others to do their bit. I can't wait for the next election. The bus barn will be your albatross Muriel.

by Bill Eubanks on Feb 7, 2012 1:46 pm • linkreport

It's amazing how I knew which council members were going to vote to enforce this law, before this post even said. DC will always be mired in a cesspool of inept, corrupt politicians as long as Mendelson, Barry, Gray, and others are kept around. Wells for Mayor 2014!

by Jordan on Feb 7, 2012 1:53 pm • linkreport

Last time we had a big snow, I contacted Tommy Wells' office to complain about the fact that none of the sidewalks around Union Station ever get shoveled. They responded that there was literally nothing that they were able to do to force the NPS to shovel the sidewalks.

by andrew on Feb 7, 2012 2:18 pm • linkreport

It is a sad commentary that even this simple issue is not one our council can effectively handle. In the meantime, if the city won't enforce its own law, I would suggest an alternative. If you have a neighbor who regularly neglects to shovel the small patch of sidewalk in front of his/her house, give them a good old fashioned guilt trip by shoveling their walk yourself. Also, make sure they see you doing it or be bold and leave a note saying so. If they have even an ounce of courtesy, they will thank you, at which point you repond that it's really not a big deal--that it only takes about TWO minutes to shovel the 30 foot stretch of sidewalk in front of a house. Embarrassment is a powerful motivator! Also, no old people with broken hips.

by MJ on Feb 7, 2012 2:45 pm • linkreport

I'm going with the Marion Barry argument -- even with the obvious outlier of Snowmageddon, there's usually not enough accumulation for this to be a legitimate issue. We may get one or two snowfalls with accumulation in a season, and it rarely stays long enough to be anything more than a mild nuissance.

Just sounds like a soapbox issue for smart growth folks who want to push for pedestrian rights. I'm one of those pedestrians, and I just don't care.

by anon on Feb 7, 2012 2:50 pm • linkreport

I kind of agree with the above comment by anon. Does the author have any data to back up this claim that unshoveled streets pose a "serious safety threat" to pedestrians? How many people are injured each winter from slipping on unshoveled streets?

by Scoot on Feb 7, 2012 3:03 pm • linkreport

@Scoot

Data to back up this claim? Frozen ice on sidewalks is slippery. Pedestrians walk on sidewalks. There is a very realistic possibility that people will slip and fall. I've fallen several times. Have I had to go to the hospital for a broken leg? No, but I have twisted an ankle or ripped a pair of pants. All of this could have been prevented if the homeowner followed the law and shoveled the sidewalks.

by Anon2 on Feb 7, 2012 3:11 pm • linkreport

The next time it snows, we should see which councilmembers are shoveling the sidewalks in front of their homes.

by Ron on Feb 7, 2012 3:12 pm • linkreport

@anon @Scoot- and there's this type of problem from not clearing sidewalks;http://www.wtop.com/?nid=25&sid=1896318

by Tina on Feb 7, 2012 3:19 pm • linkreport

No, this isn't on most DC residents "issue of the year" but it still should've been passed. I never think about it either...until I'm forced to walk in the street because some homeowner decided to leave their lots unshoveled. Then it's more than an inconvenience.

This article doesn't give me enough sense of the opposition beyond the usual.."they don't care about pedestrians" stuff.

Is it deciding on fines vs. some other sort of punishment?

by HogWash on Feb 7, 2012 3:28 pm • linkreport

Yeah, snow in sidewalks isn't dangerous at all:

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/02/19/AR2010021905091.html

by Tim Krepp on Feb 7, 2012 3:29 pm • linkreport

This reveals the priorities of these 8 CMs. They'd rather get complaints from the old and parents who can't get around than from the unneighborly who might finally get a ticket for their selfish behavior.

The argument that this is a solution in search of a problem is preposterous. The solution only kicks in when there actually is a problem. If it doesn't snow, nobody gets a ticket!

by TM on Feb 7, 2012 3:33 pm • linkreport

This is the Council giving a big middle finger to disabled people. It makes me really sad when I see all the people on my street who use motorized wheelchairs being forced to ride in the street when it snows.

by Ward 1 Guy on Feb 7, 2012 3:43 pm • linkreport

@anon, @Scoot, et al: I broke my ankle during Snowpocalypse when I fell on an unshoveled walk a week after the snow stopped falling; the property owner never did shovel the sidewalk, although they did use their snowblower to clear out their driveway almost immediately, so I'm sure they could have if only they weren't selfish gits. Yes, I'm still bitter. My insurance company took the incident details in order to sue the property owner, and while I usually have nothing good to say for my or any other insurance company, in this particular case I sure hope they won and took the jerk for a bundle.

There's no reason the District shouldn't have a way to enforce the requirement that people shovel their walks, the way that Arlington and Alexandria and Montgomery do.

by cminus on Feb 7, 2012 3:51 pm • linkreport

@anon @Scoot-here's some data on increased injuries due to slipping on ice:
http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/00039812.htm

after a winter storm injuries increased 4x-5x. After the sidewalks were cleared injuries fell back to normal levels.

by Tina on Feb 7, 2012 3:53 pm • linkreport

This is one of my all-time pet peeves. I walk nearly a mile and a half to work (and another 1.5 miles back) and I can tell you that un-shoveled sidewalks after a snow storm are a serious problem, at least on my route.

I wish I had been aware that the council was considering such legislation, I would most certainly have made my views known.

by Chris on Feb 7, 2012 4:01 pm • linkreport

Yeah, I've been forced into bike lanes - or worse, streets WITHOUT bike lanes - by uncleared sidewalks...sometimes for days after a storm (weeks after the snowpocali). We already have a grace period (you get 8 hours of daylight to clean up), I suppose we could easily put some minimum threshold for snowfall (my hometown's standard was > 2" of snow or 1/10" of ice), and then I just don't understand what the problem is??? But I know what the solution is: everyone call their council member and all of the at-larges if they voted against this with ANY and ALL uncleared sidewalk complaints (never thought I'd wish for snow...). If they think they'll be more inconvenienced by people complaining about the fines, or that it's not a problem, let's show them they're wrong on both counts.

by Ms. D on Feb 7, 2012 4:14 pm • linkreport

Get a pair of snow shoes and [deleted for violating the comment policy].

by TGEoA on Feb 7, 2012 4:22 pm • linkreport

I'm one of those who complained about the parking lot owners who clear their lots and the entrances but seem to think that after their customers have parked they don't have to walk except in the street. I complained to NPS too. I walk everywhere pretty much since I don't drive so I resent anyone suggesting that I should stay home when it snows until the snow melts rather than expect people to live up to their responsibilities. I complained to Wells , Cheh and Catania so I'm glad they acted . Next snow I will complain to the rest of the CMs.

by danmac on Feb 7, 2012 4:27 pm • linkreport

GGW's David Albert gets upset about the strangest things. The tree crews won't listen to the advice of homeowners while on the clock trimming trees? The DC Council won't impose a fine on residents who do not shovel?

Here are a few issues of more interest to me than the customer service attitudes of tree trimmers or the ten days or so each winter when the jerk down the block does not shovel:

Hunger, homelessness, high unemployment, education, lack of services in W7/W8, corruption on the DC Council, Wizards/Redskins suck....

GGW often stretches in pursuit of irrelevancy.

by Trulee Pist on Feb 7, 2012 4:28 pm • linkreport

[Deleted for violating the comment policy.]

So pray tell us David, why should the elderly, frail or just plain lazy be required to maintain a pedestrian right of way?

by TGEoA on Feb 7, 2012 4:42 pm • linkreport

Not to get all personal, @Trulee, but I've seen you go nuts over some issues that I didn't think were that important. Different issues are important to different people.

This shouldn't even be an issue. This is an easy fix of an outdated law. The issue is that so many council members can't be troubled and, I think, show an anti-pedestrian bias so openly.

by Tim Krepp on Feb 7, 2012 4:42 pm • linkreport

one reason some of these CMs are opposed is the flack they would get from the churches which own extensive vacant properties which they don't arrange to have the sidewalks shoveled

by anon on Feb 7, 2012 4:48 pm • linkreport

Maybe they voted against this law because most homeowners don't actually own the sidewalk in front of their homes. Yes, as a matter of being a good neighbor, I think people should clear the sidewalks in front of their homes, but some commenters here are really acting like homewoners actually own the sidewalks and therefore they should shovel. Nope, it's just a good gesture.

by Roman on Feb 7, 2012 5:11 pm • linkreport

@Trulee

GGW didn't make this into a huge issue. Some CMs got enough constituent complaints that they deemed it to be a big enough issue to bring it up.

So pray tell us David, why should the elderly, frail or just plain lazy be required to maintain a pedestrian right of way?

This is not in dispute. It's the law in DC and the law in most other jurisdictions in the country.

I would have liked to a see a compromise like stepped up enforcement for businesses and institutions while holding the status quo for residents/landlords.

I'm going with the Marion Barry argument -- even with the obvious outlier of Snowmageddon, there's usually not enough accumulation for this to be a legitimate issue.

Average annual snowfall is 22.3 inches and 20.8 inches as measured at Dulles and BWI airports. Source: NOAA

by Falls Church on Feb 7, 2012 5:12 pm • linkreport

GGW spends a significant time talking about the grander visions and ideas concerning smart growth just as much as they discuss viable solutions, however minor, about today's problems. Shoveling snow is not finding a cure for cancer, nevertheless, it is a problem that affects everybody that has a fairly simple answer. The low hanging fruit is still fruit afterall.

@Trulee, I'm sure Mr. Alpert would appreciate any articles you write or research you conduct concerning hunger, homelessness, high unemployment, education, lack of services in W7/W8, corruption on the DC Council and why our sports team are awful.

by cmc on Feb 7, 2012 5:15 pm • linkreport

but some commenters here are really acting like homewoners actually own the sidewalks and therefore they should shovel.

Correct: homeowners almost never own the sidewalks in front of their house in DC. In fact, many homeowners don't own their front yard. However, shoveling the sidewalk (and maintaining your yard) is still the homeowner's responsibility according to DC law. It works the same way in virtually every other city in the country where homeowners don't own the sidewalk.

by Falls Church on Feb 7, 2012 5:15 pm • linkreport

but some commenters here are really acting like homewoners actually own the sidewalks and therefore they should shovel.

I'd also point out that not owning the sidewalk doesn't protect you from a lawsuit if someone slips and falls on the unshoveled sidewalk in front of your home.

by Falls Church on Feb 7, 2012 5:18 pm • linkreport

Roman, while you don't own the sidewalk in around your home, it's not just a "good gesture" it's a LAW, one that needs real enforcement. You also don't own your tree lawn (someone told me only Midwesterners say that, so what I'm talking about is the strip of grass between the sidewalk and the street), are you going to stop maintaining yours? In fact, many DC homeowners don't even own their front yards/a part of their front yards (http://www.dpw.dc.gov/DC/Planning/Planning%20Publication%20Files/Important%20Definitions.pdf), should we all just stop maintaining our "public parking?"

by Ms. D on Feb 7, 2012 5:23 pm • linkreport

"I'd also point out that not owning the sidewalk doesn't protect you from a lawsuit if someone slips and falls on the unshoveled sidewalk in front of your home."

Actually, in DC, it does. Homeowners are not liable for injuries on sidewalks in front of their house unless they actively contributed to the hazard (e.g., pouring water on the snow to make it extra icy).

by ah on Feb 7, 2012 5:25 pm • linkreport

"However, shoveling the sidewalk (and maintaining your yard) is still the homeowner's responsibility according to DC law."

That's a bit of a circular argument. The question is whether it should be the law and what the penalties should be for its violation.

Homeowners are responsible for maintaining the "public parking" in front of their houses too, but the city doesn't issue fines if you don't plant enough trees or rake the leaves fast enough or decide to plant ugly flowers in that space.

It could do those things, of course, but you'd see a lot of debate over whether it was fair to fine people for failing to undertake work that is a contribution for the benefit of others, and whether it's fair to require people to remove leaves quickly, even if they're old or away on vacation for a week or two, or whether the city might decide to start ticketing people for planting ugly flowers because it's an easy way to raise revenue.

by ah on Feb 7, 2012 5:28 pm • linkreport

@ah

I was unaware that ugly flowers represented a public safety hazard the same way that slipping on un-shoveled snow would.

As someone who grew up in a place that got a lot of snow, and as the kid in the house who ended up shoveling most of it, I find the mere fact that this is an issue to be amusing. I can't believe there's actually a debate about such a small and basic part of a resident's civic obligation.

by Alex B. on Feb 7, 2012 5:38 pm • linkreport

@ah

Homeowners are not liable for injuries on sidewalks in front of their house unless they actively contributed to the hazard (e.g., pouring water on the snow to make it extra icy).

Actively contributing to the hazard - such as not shoveling snow and ice in a reasonable and timely manner?

by Alex B. on Feb 7, 2012 5:47 pm • linkreport

Screw pedestrian safety- Marion Barry is more worried about having good snow tires on his unregistered Jaguar.

by ed on Feb 7, 2012 5:48 pm • linkreport

@Tim Krepp, if you are referring to my never-ending campaign to insist that "if the Mayor puts benches in a park, leave the damn benches in the park, people," yes, I am all over that. But I do not bring up DC Council legislation or frontpage it on GGW. I simply the support the efforts of volunteers to take this on in their own neighborhoods and replace stolen/vandalized benches as necessary.

On this issue, I do everything I can to make sure MY block is the best damn shoveled block in the city, whether all the neighbors pitch in or not. That's what I'd recommend here: If you are outside shoveling your sidewalk, and you notice your neighbors are jerks, just stay outside another half hour and shovel their sidewalks, too.

Not all issues require Council action.

by Trulee Pist on Feb 7, 2012 5:52 pm • linkreport

@ Alex B. - No. Not shoveling the snow is not "actively contributing" to the hazard.

Long line of cases establish that there is no liability. Here's one from a couple of years ago.

http://caselaw.findlaw.com/dc-court-of-appeals/1428782.html

by ah on Feb 7, 2012 6:02 pm • linkreport

A practical problem with the bill was that it required snow to be clear within too few daylight hours after snowfall stopped. If you are away from home 10 hours a day for work, you could not avoid fines except on winter's shortest days. Well, sure, you could try to prearrange with someone to shovel your walk. For this task, you need a very special neighbor, or else you would need to hire someone very capable and reliable (because the task does not arise often and the timing and stop-of-snowfall parameters are tricky), who is not otherwise occupied, and (because of the tight time frame) has few other customers. Hmm...

The street-plowed rider made it even weirder because you have no way of knowing when they might be plowing your street. On the other hand, the true danger does not arise until traffic competes with pedestrians on the street. Therefore, *16* daylight hours after stop-of-snowfall is announced by a cannon seems about right. One day to learn that it needs doing and one day to get it done.

by Turnip on Feb 7, 2012 6:36 pm • linkreport

Alex B. gets it:
As someone who grew up in a place that got a lot of snow, and as the kid in the house who ended up shoveling most of it, I find the mere fact that this is an issue to be amusing. I can't believe there's actually a debate about such a small and basic part of a resident's civic obligation.

For the naysayers who think people shouldn't shovel, find us a city in this country where it snows and people are NOT required to shovel their walks. This is how they do it EVERYWHERE and how we currently do it in DC, the only difference is the enforcement mechanism in DC is ridiculously roundabout and cumbersome.

@Turnip
What, you can't shovel snow while it's dark? Seems to me 24 hours after it snows your walk should be shoveled.

by MLD on Feb 7, 2012 6:47 pm • linkreport

Another tack is creating an explict liabiity for unplowed sidewalks. Rather than having the city fine homeowners, let homeowners sue each other.

Given that the DC and Federal goverment are the worst offenders, good luck collecting.

by charlie on Feb 7, 2012 6:53 pm • linkreport

All of this could be avoided if people just stepped up and did the right thing.

And shoveled their sidewalks. You know - as a courtesy?

by Jack Love on Feb 7, 2012 7:26 pm • linkreport

@MLD "For the naysayers who think people shouldn't shovel, find us a city in this country where it snows and people are NOT required to shovel their walks

Unfortunately, the same can't do attitude that comes into play with regards to plowing our streets, comes into play here. There's something about snow that initiates a spirit of defeatism in Washingtonians. I've yet to figure it out. They know how to throw snowballs, go play in the snow, and do all sorts of things out there ... but when it comes to shoveling ... i.e., doing the actual work we become a city of I can't do its. Maybe that's in line with our leadership in making policy and hosting think thanks? I mean, we definitely know how to tell others what's right and what they should do ... But it's just a 'little' harder to actually do anything ourselves!

by Lance on Feb 7, 2012 7:32 pm • linkreport

@ah

Long line of cases establish that there is no liability.

No liability for a lawsuit? That's fine with me. There's plenty of liability for a small fine, however. We even have it on the books, just in an unenforceable way.

@Trulee Pist

Not all issues require Council action.

Except for the ones that obviously do.

This isn't even about changing the requirement (shoveling) and the penalty (a small fine), it's merely about making the modest stick to go with the carrot of your civic spirit actually enforceable and actionable.

People respond to incentives. We already have one on the books, we just need a small Council action in order to make it workable.

This should be a low hanging fruit that was plucked long ago.

by Alex B. on Feb 7, 2012 7:59 pm • linkreport

To be clear, I was just commenting on the commenters who seemed to suggest the sidewalks are the property of homeowners. The bill should have permitted more time to clear the walk. Some people feel like the city is implementing all sorts of fees for any and everything so they complained. I walk pretty much everywhere so I know how annoying and dangerous uncleared walks are. With respect to homeowners, many neighborhoods have organized snow clearing teams so that if an elderly resident or some other resident is not able to clear the walk, someone on the list will do it for them. In my neighborhood, people generally will just clear their neighbor's walk in addition to their own, so it usually isn't a problem. But for those people who live in neighborhoods with civic associations, perhaps attending a meeting and suggesting organizing a snow clearing team will benefit everyone, even if this law never gets enforced.

by Roman on Feb 7, 2012 8:17 pm • linkreport

@Lance

It probably mostly has to do with the fact that it doesn't snow that much here, when it does snow it usually melts within a couple days.

by MLD on Feb 7, 2012 8:53 pm • linkreport

C'mon, I grew up in Milwaukee. There was no municipal ordinance about shovelling your sidewalk.

I'm with Roman. If GGW urged everyone to organize their neighborhoods and praised those who did and shamed those who didn't, they'd accomplish the same thing without getting DC Council involved.

My block is well-shoveled, and we even go out after the snow plows go by to clear a path from bus stop to where the bus stops, and knock down the snow walls at the intersection. Give me a medal.

by Trulee Pist on Feb 7, 2012 9:04 pm • linkreport

http://city.milwaukee.gov/mpw/divisions/operations/environmental/sanitation/winter/SidewalkSnowRemoval.htm

Private Property, residential or commercial property owners and occupants are required to clear the sidewalks abutting their property of snow or ice within 24 hours after the snow and ice have stopped falling. This includes the corner crosswalk area for property owners with corner lots or those whose property abuts a midblock crosswalk. Violators who are reported to DPW are issued a notice to clear the walk and will be assessed an initial inspection charge of $25 for the first notice, $45 for the second notice and $90 for subsequent violations per City Ordiance 116-8. If the sidewalks still are not clear within another 24 hours, a Sanitation crew will clear a path on the walk, and the charge will appear on the property tax bill.

by Alex B. on Feb 7, 2012 9:23 pm • linkreport

Boom goes the dynamite.

by William on Feb 7, 2012 10:10 pm • linkreport

anonymous said: "I'm going with the Marion Barry argument -- even with the obvious outlier of Snowmageddon, there's usually not enough accumulation for this to be a legitimate issue. We may get one or two snowfalls with accumulation in a season, and it rarely stays long enough to be anything more than a mild nuissance (sic)."

What is a mild nuisance to you is much more of a hardship to someone who is wheelchair bound and who relies on our public walks to reach public transportation or just to navigate from place to place. Making this a fine is a way of punishing people who fail to use common courtesy and shovel their walks when snow *is* present.

by Alan Page on Feb 8, 2012 1:11 am • linkreport

Perhaps DC garbage truck drivers could shovel snow from lunch until quitting time?

The existing law is a reasonable allocation of burden to deal with emergencies. But it is not the only approach.

Are sidewalks part of the community transportation infrastructure, or amenities associated with property? If they are part of the community infrastructure, like roads, then the community should bear the burden of snow clearing as they do with roads, to the extent that the community needs the sidewalks cleared before the landowner would choose to do so.

This issue comes to a head in suburban areas that lack sidewalks, where people have not bought into a pre-existing system. A locality might want to build a sidewalk along a major thoroughfare in the back yards of the residents of a subdivision, who may almost never use that sidewalk as it is on the other side of their fence. The residents object that it would be unfair to subject them to maintaining a sidewalk that is really for the general public, and not them. Either the political process (or the county lawyers mindful of Dollan v. Tigard) decide not to build the sidewalk, rather than simply building a sidewalk making the county responsible for maintenance.

by Jim Titus on Feb 8, 2012 9:13 am • linkreport

DC municipal regulations ch 24-2001: Hazardous obstructions in public space: 2001.4. No person shall occupy with, place, leave, or cause to be placed or left on public space, any obstruction to travel that is dangerous to life and limb, without protecting and guarding that public space.

Seems like this applies to snow. Why not use that law?

by goldfish on Feb 8, 2012 9:23 am • linkreport

@goldfish: It would be a stretch, but maybe you could charge a snowplow driver who blocked a key sidewalk or exit with snow from the street under that law. But if the snow just falls, whom would you charge?

by Jim Titus on Feb 8, 2012 9:46 am • linkreport

Changing the law in DC is but one step. Enforcing the law is another huge hurdle. I live in Alexandria which has a law requiring shoveling the sidewalk in front of your house or you'll get a fine. Every winter (when it snows... unlike this winter) I report the same neighbors for not shoveling. Every winter the city says "we'll send someone out". Clearly nothing is done because the same houses continue to not shovel the snow. And, I have NEVER seen/heard of anyone being ticketed for violating the law.

So, changing the law is but one step in a long process of cultural change.

by Alexandrian on Feb 8, 2012 10:11 am • linkreport

@TimKrepp, @Tina, I appreciate the links. I think maybe the question I was asking is whether failing to enforce the existing laws regarding shoveling itself poses the serious safety threat that this blog post suggests (particularly in the wards highlighted in this story ...1, 4 and 8). In the case of the man who was the victim of a hit-and-run, he was walking in the street (on a public road in Maryland, not a private sidewalk in DC) because DOT had plowed the road and dumped all the snow on the sidewalk/curb instead of hauling it away. It was also during a period of historically intense snow accumulation (i.e. snowpocalypse). From where I see it, relying on this and other outliers to prove a point seems a bit flawed.

I walk everywhere and I understand the desire to have sidewalks shoveled after a snowfall. And I also understand the need to make these areas accessible to people with disabilities. I've slipped and fallen before, but then I got snow boots, and now I don't slip and fall anymore (should the DC Council pass a law requiring every resident to obtain snow boots because of the serious safety risk posed by not wearing proper shoes for the weather conditions?). Perhaps I just take issue with the suggestion that the DC Council's actions are putting residents in harm's way, and if only they could start walking everywhere, they'd know how us poor pedestrians feel. Maybe it's true and maybe it's not, but I'm not certain it's the right attitude to take in lieu of actual observable data that would sway the council to take action on this issue.

by Scoot on Feb 8, 2012 10:24 am • linkreport

@ David Alpert: 8 inches of snow is not the normal snowfall for DC. See @ Falls Church's comment above. The average at Dulles is 20"+ and National Airport's average is around 15" with most of the District falling somewhere in between.

If we only got 8" of snow a year (that would be like living in Raleigh, North Carolina) this debate about shoveling would be a lot less important.

by nativedc on Feb 8, 2012 10:31 am • linkreport

nativedc: Right, my wording was unclear. That's the average for past years through January, according to Capital Weather Gang. The total average over a winter is of course higher. I've corrected it.

by David Alpert on Feb 8, 2012 10:40 am • linkreport

@JimTitus; exactly right. These sort of burdens really don't help the case of sidewalks/bike paths in suburban areas. Not exactly the same game, but something to keep in mind.

I wonder how many die each year from shovelling snow?

Another bad habit is people dumping snow, deicing or antifreeze on the sidewalks?

In my 18 years of Washington, there have only been a few storms which haven't melted away in 3 days. I think that is what drives the lack of shovelling -- the knowledge that it will go away. Enforcement in Arlington is also pathetic.

by charlie on Feb 8, 2012 10:46 am • linkreport

Yeah, I'm not sure where David's getting (or how he's interpreting) his weather stats.

http://lwf.ncdc.noaa.gov/oa/climate/online/ccd/snowfall.html

DCA annual snow average: 16.6 inches
IAD annual snow average: 22.3 inches

The 8.4 inches referenced in the Capital Weather Gang post David linked to is the average snowfall as of the start of February, not the average for the entire winter.

The NOAA data linked above shows averages at DCA of 5.1 inches in Feb and 2.3 inches in Mar - almost half of the total.

Also, David referenced this as the least-snowy of 124 winters on record, which isn't exactly what the CWG post says - it says this is one of the 18 least snowy winters to date, based on 124 years of data.

The bottom line for snow in DC is that averages aren't particularly useful. This area of the country doesn't get consistent snowfall, but when the snow does come, it often comes in large blizzards that dump huge amounts. There's a lot of variance in the data from year to year, so the averages aren't all that telling.

Likewise, if you remember back to the Snowpocalypse of 2010, remember that those back to back storms came through on Feb 5-6 and Feb 9-10. There was another big storm that hit the East Coast further north (but mostly missed the Mid-Atlantic) on Feb 25-27. That winter saw DCA get 56 inches of snow. When you follow that with a year (so far) with less than 2, the average figure isn't going to be the most useful.

by Alex B. on Feb 8, 2012 10:52 am • linkreport

@charlie

Yeah, we don't want to create more resistance to added sidewalks in neighborhoods. There are a lot of ways one could deal with that - exemptions in particular areas, that historically did not have sidewalks. Beyond those areas one could also give exemptions for the elderly poor, or give them money (which they could use to hire someone to shovel for them - thats what the non-poor elderly and frail often do, at least those who do not live in places where their kindly neighbors will help them out).

Yeah we shouldnt be rigid. I'm not sure that argues against enforcement in places where sidewalks have long been in place, where the need to shovel was (or should have been) understood when the property was bought, and where pedestrian traffic is sufficient to make shoveling important. That seems to me to be one more creation of a property right that did not previously exist, one more give away of a right that is currently public property - privatizing it without compensation.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Feb 8, 2012 10:59 am • linkreport

@AWalkerInTheCity; I'll hazard a guess than most of DC (WOTR) has sidewalks already. so, I agree, a done deal here.

The point I'm making is advocacy --if you want to bring sidewalks into new areas, you've got to understand the relecutance of landowners to take on the new job of shoveling said sidewalks is a real issue. And that is more true for GGW than for the DC council.

Is the analogy with dog crap? I didn't think the burst of laws about picking up after your dog really would work, but it did seem to inspire some sort of change in behavior.

by charlie on Feb 8, 2012 11:17 am • linkreport

@charlie

This isn't even a change in the effect of the law. The old law requires sidewalks to be shoveled. The new law would require sidewalks to be shoveled.

It's a change of the enforcement mechanism to something that's actually useful.

by Alex B. on Feb 8, 2012 11:25 am • linkreport

@charlie

yes I understand that, and I was thinking in the context of Fairfax Cty (and other suburbs), where we have some issues with unshoveled sidewalks, and we ALSO have neighborhoods that lack sidewalks that ought to have them. I'm trying to think of ways we could enforce OUR shovel laws, without adding to resistance to more sidewalks.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Feb 8, 2012 1:45 pm • linkreport

In most Maryland jurisdictions, property owners must clear sidewalks but the locality must clear a multi-use trail, so if the people on a given street don't want to take on the burden, call it a trail.

by Jim Titus on Feb 8, 2012 2:05 pm • linkreport

I'd also point out that not owning the sidewalk doesn't protect you from a lawsuit if someone slips and falls on the unshoveled sidewalk in front of your home.

My wife used to defend "slip and fall" cases. They're almost impossible for the plaintiff to win, so she liked it because they always padded her stats. If you see snow and ice and walk over it anyway, then it is your fault in the eyes of the law. She used to joke that she only needed two questions answered in the affirmative to win "Did you see the ice?" "Do you know that ice is slippery?".

You need to do something like pour water on the sidewalk or try to hide the ice to be liable.

by David C on Feb 8, 2012 4:16 pm • linkreport

@ Alex B. - In its weather-recording history DC has gotten more than foot of snow in a day only 10 times, and more than a foot only a few more times if you count 2-day accumulations. Its long-run average is that a 6+ inch storm happens only about once every two years.

http://www.erh.noaa.gov/lwx/winter/storm-pr.htm#TopDaySnowfall

The snows in DC are rarely large and more frequently only a couple of inches.

by ah on Feb 8, 2012 4:35 pm • linkreport

I'm sympathetic to the need, but how can the District compel me to shovel a sidewalk that belongs to them? Will I next be required to plow the street in front of my house?

by Rob on Feb 8, 2012 4:44 pm • linkreport

The 13th Amendment seems to make such a law unconstitutional

by Rob on Feb 8, 2012 4:47 pm • linkreport

@ah

The comparison I was making was to the Midwest. Outside of areas that get significant Lake Effect snow, even storms that bring 5 inches of snow are rare compared even to DC.

Instead, there are two key differences. One is a long string of smaller snow events (1-2 inches at a time) and the fact that the ground has frosted and the air temperature is such that once snow lands, it stays and does not melt.

Snow events in DC are rare, period. But when they do happen, they tend to be larger relative to the overall totals than the events you see in Minneapolis, as an example. Big, 6+ inch snows are fairly rare there, too.

The general reason is moisture - since it's colder in the Midwest, cold air doesn't carry as much moisture and therefore packs less potential for snow.

The impact on shoveling is that you have to do it more often when you have lots of small snow events - that's what helps build the culture.

My point was that you don't get that in DC from looking at the annual totals because the relevant stat to look at would be snow event days - the average accumulation is misleading because of the large storms, no matter how rare they are.

by Alex B. on Feb 8, 2012 4:58 pm • linkreport

Rob, requiring property owners to maintain the sidewalk adjacent to their property is far far far short of slavery. You'd be laughed out of court with that one.

how can the District compel me to shovel a sidewalk that belongs to them?

For starters, they don't. You only have to make sure it's shoveled. So, you can pay someone to do it if you don't want to do it yourself. Second of all, they can do it by passing a law. Which they did.

by David C on Feb 8, 2012 5:40 pm • linkreport

"Rob, requiring property owners to maintain the sidewalk adjacent to their property is far far far short of slavery. You'd be laughed out of court with that one.

For starters, they don't. You only have to make sure it's shoveled. So, you can pay someone to do it if you don't want to do it yourself. Second of all, they can do it by passing a law. Which they did."

The 13th amendment also proscribes involuntary servitude and thanks for mischaracterizin my post. For a quick civics lesson, laws are subject to challenge on a variety of basis.

by Rob on Feb 8, 2012 5:47 pm • linkreport

The 13th amendment also proscribes involuntary servitude and thanks for mischaracterizin my post. For a quick civics lesson, laws are subject to challenge on a variety of basis.

How did I mischaracterize your post? If you meant involuntary servitude you should have been more specific. I doubt you would get much traction trying to claim that a law like this is unconstitutional, but I've surprised by the court before.

I realize that laws are subject to change, but I answered your question 100% accurately. If you meant "Why has no one challenged the constitutionality of this law?" or "Why would they pass a law I think is so obviously unconstitutional?" then that is the question you should have asked.

by David C on Feb 8, 2012 5:59 pm • linkreport

Another approach would be to change our right of way laws to provide that pedestrians always and everywhere have the right of way against drivers. And provide a private right of action. Then we can just walk in the street like our ancestors did and we won't need sidewalks.

by Eileen on Feb 8, 2012 6:36 pm • linkreport

"The 13th amendment also proscribes involuntary servitude and thanks for mischaracterizin my post. For a quick civics lesson, laws are subject to challenge on a variety of basis."

Being compelled to act in a certain manner by the state to avoid a fine is not "involuntary servitude". If that were the case, and taking your argument that the state cannot compel one to perform an action with fines to a logical extreme, people could use the 13th Amendment to challenge laws (a) requiring one to dispose of trash in a specific manner or face a fine (so one has to put your trash into a can and put the can in a designated place for pick-up), (b) requiring one not to jaywalk or face a possible fine (thereby controlling when one walks), (c) preventing one from driving through red lights across intersections when driving or face a fine (controlling when one drives or stops), etc

The 13th Amendment was written to address involuntary servitude in a private sector context and, in fact, explicitly allows for involuntary servitude in a criminal enforcement context (prison labor). Forcing one to act in a certain manner by regulation or face a fine is much more closely related to forcing one to work if they violate a criminal statute than forcing one to work in a private sector context (antebellum slavery)

by Alan Page on Feb 8, 2012 7:54 pm • linkreport

While Rob is totally off based trying to bring in the 13th amendment, his intuition that there are potential constitutional problems is valid. But its our old friend the "takings clause" that can potentially be violated.

Requiring property owners to get the snow cleared for the sake of the public is essentially a tax. But it is a tax that only some people pay, known as anm "exaction". Because exactions must be in rough proportion to the problems that arise from a given landowner's activities, there probably would be a problem requiring someone to shovel snow if, for example, it was a really wide sidewalk to accommodate a large apartment or government office building. But if he is just doing his proportionate share, then this cost of shoveling is about what his tax bill for shoveling would be if it was done by the city, so there is not problem.

by Jim Titus on Feb 8, 2012 9:40 pm • linkreport

Actually what I am describing is most correct termed a corvée and has a long history of use in Europe and some use in the United States. Alan is way off base with his trash, jaywalking and red light running examples because they all proscribe actions. A corvée is the requirement to perform labor for the state, which is clearly what the city is attempting to do. The fact that it hasn't been overturned is easily explained - the city has never attempted to enforce the law using the legal system.

Jim says a corvée is essentially a tax and I agree. Economically it is essentially a tax, but that doesn't mean that constitutionally the state can use that mechanism. The state can tax me as a property owner, but it can't require services from me in lieu of a monetary tax. The city can't require three days labor from me rather than my monetary property tax.

by Rob on Feb 8, 2012 10:34 pm • linkreport

97% of lawyers give the rest a bad name. Be a good citizen and shovel your walk or pay someone else to do it. Only an a--hole would challenge the legal - and civic - responsibility to shovel their walk.

by Tina on Feb 8, 2012 11:01 pm • linkreport

Rob,

Case closed. In Butler v. Perry the supreme court ruled that

"A reasonable amount of work on public roads near his residence is a part of the duty owed by able-bodied men to the public, and a requirement by a state to that effect does not amount to imposition of involuntary servitude otherwise than as a punishment for crime within the prohibition of the Thirteenth Amendment, nor does the enforcement of such requirement deprive persons of their liberty and property without due process of law in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment."

Being married to a lawyer has it's advantages.

by David C on Feb 8, 2012 11:04 pm • linkreport

How very civil. Here here for the 3%.

Ok I understand there was an academic wonky discussion of the legal provision of requiring walk shoveling. From my perspective, like Alex B., its a given and a breach of culturally accepted norm to even question it.

by Tina on Feb 8, 2012 11:09 pm • linkreport

Butler v. Perry

Damn I hate it when the Supreme Court doesn't see things my way.

by Rob on Feb 9, 2012 8:33 am • linkreport

Still, making it illegal and more often enforced isn't really going to solve the problem. Even with 90% compliance, that still leaves a lot of unshoveled walks.

What they should do is give people time to shovel their sidewalks, then send city crews around to shovel those that remain. They could knock on doors first, document the walk before and after with photos and leave it in good shape. Then just tack a $10 to $20 fee on to the property's water bill or property tax bill. The fee should be high enough to create an incentive, but low enough to not be onerous.

by David C on Feb 9, 2012 11:36 am • linkreport

Aside from the large stretches of sidewalk that are theoretically the responsibility of the nonshoveling and unaccountable NPS, what makes it impossible for DC to ensure that walks are shoveled the same way other cities do? While there are cases in which DC is a special snowflake, this doesn't seem to be one of them. It's not necessary for us to reinvent the wheel in every case.

by Keith Ivey on Feb 9, 2012 12:44 pm • linkreport

The reason this was belittled was probably in part due to the lack of snow this year.

While I appreciate the discussion, the large large whole that is avoided is - what happens to our public parks and our PUBLIC land after snow? Those employees are usually on leave, so who clears the public sidewalks?

by Jazzy on Feb 13, 2012 8:03 am • linkreport

Also, you may want to check to make sure the CWG's gauges are actually in the City of Washington. There are no rain gauges in the City of Washington (incredibly) for instance.

by Jazzy on Feb 13, 2012 8:06 am • linkreport

Jazzy,

There are plenty of weather stations in DC proper. The 'official' weather station is always the airport of record because aviation has a strong interest in accurate and reliable weather information.

by Alex B. on Feb 13, 2012 8:39 am • linkreport

When we had the torrential rains, I asked the guys if there was an official rain gauge in DC proper.

They said no.

So, no.

by Jazzy on Feb 13, 2012 11:41 am • linkreport

Just because it's not the 'official' gauge doesn't mean others don't exist. Yes, the gauge, as in one - singular.

There are other professional weather stations around the city as well. Just because the one at DCA is the 'official' one for DC doesn't mean there isn't any other professionally kept records out there.

http://www.wunderground.com/weatherstation/ListStations.asp?selectedState=DC&selectedCountry=United+States

I'm also not sure what your point is. So, DC's official record is at DCA. So what?

by Alex B. on Feb 13, 2012 11:54 am • linkreport

During rains, there is a HUGE variation in rain amounts. To say that we got 3" of rain in Washington, DC because that was what was collected at National is simply inaccurate.

There is right now, no way to know what our precipation levels are in Washington, DC.

That's my point.

by Jazzy on Feb 13, 2012 12:01 pm • linkreport

Still - so what? If the District boundary extended to cover DCA, what difference would it make? If the official weather station were on the National Mall, that wouldn't suddenly make the rainfall across the District be uniform.

There is right now, no way to know what our precipation levels are in Washington, DC.

This is false. I just posted a link to a site with several official weather observations stations located within DC!

We also need to have one 'official' station. And no matter where that station is, it will only be truly accurate for that specific station.

So, again, I ask - what's your point?

by Alex B. on Feb 13, 2012 6:25 pm • linkreport

I realize a weather station is accurate at that particular station only, but it would seem that the least accurate station for Washington, DC would be in Virginia. But, you will say, it's close enough, and what's the difference between National Airport and then just inside the boundary, nearby? To which I would reply, that there is probably a way to get a weather station in Washington, DC that is more representative, and that is to look at the different weather stations you reference, for example. I'm sure there's some scientific formulation that allows you to decide where the most representative place (typical) is in Washington. It won't be accurate for every neighborhood, but I just have a feeling it would be more accurate than the airport.

Jason-CapitalWeatherGang

There's no official observing station in DC - so you won't find any rainfall data for DC on NOAA's site...

Looking at the precipitation numbers for July 2011 from the site you provided:
hoover building 0
Naval Research: 0
H Street 1.8
Eckington 2.28
Palisades 2.17
Ward Circle 2.20
SW Washington 1.82

National: 3.03

by Jazzy on Feb 13, 2012 7:49 pm • linkreport

I don't know what formula you would use to find a typical location. DC ranges from 450 feet in elevation to sea level, there are micro climates all over the city, both natural and man made.

But again, there's no such thing as a typical location. So what's the problem?

This original post used data this year from DCA. The historical data is also from DCA, and that historical consistency is more important.

by Alex B. on Feb 13, 2012 8:10 pm • linkreport

I don't know what formula you use either, but I'm sure there is one.

The problem is that when you compare July's numbers intra DC the gap is not as wide as it is between Washington, DC and Virginia. A reading within DC will be more similar to other readings in DC than one done in Virginia.

by Jazzy on Feb 13, 2012 10:26 pm • linkreport

A reading within DC will be more similar to other readings in DC than one done in Virginia.

So, this is purely a political argument then? Just because DCA is across a line on a map?

I'll bet the weather observations at Bolling AFB mirror those at DCA, because both are at sea level next to the Potomac. Would a Bolling AFB weather station make you feel better because it wasn't in Virginia?

Again, I don't see what the problem is here. Weather varies, often tremendously in a very short distance.

by Alex B. on Feb 13, 2012 10:33 pm • linkreport

The desire for better representation (weather representation, not political) and accuracy is now political? I'm not sure if you are deliberately misunderstanding or mis representing what I'm saying.

I know you don't see what the problem is, you keep saying it over and over and over, I keep explaining it over and over, and then you say it again, and so it goes.

I've said what would be preferable. Fine if you don't want to listen.

by Jazzy on Feb 13, 2012 10:44 pm • linkreport

How are the disabled and elderly supposed to get medicine, food, and water?

by Cc on Feb 20, 2012 8:25 am • linkreport

Last time I checked water comes out of a faucet. I have a 90 days supply of meds and have never seen a snow last that long around here. Are you sure you're not being overly dramatic?

by Rob on Feb 20, 2012 8:39 am • linkreport

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