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Suggested fixes to Prince George's snow removal policies

The Prince George's County Council will soon convene a public meeting with officials from the Department of Public Works & Transportation (DPW&T) to discuss the county's response to and management of the recent back-to-back snowstorms in February 2010.

Photo from Prince George's DPW&T

The goal of this event, according to council chairman Thomas E. Dernoga (D-Dist. 1) and council member Samuel H. Dean (D-Dist. 6), is to review what happened and to determine what improvements are necessary to better handle future snow events.

On numerous occasions, I have personally experienced the negative ramifications of the county's currently inadequate and inefficient snow removal process, both as a pedestrian and a driver. Here are some suggestions for county officials to improve the snow removal process, particularly pedestrian and transit rider safety:

12 hours in denser areas: The County should immediately amend its sidewalk ordinance to state that all property owners and lawful occupants of vacant or improved lots in the Developed Tier and in Centers and Corridors are responsible for removing ice and snow from abutting sidewalks and away from abutting fire hydrants and drains within 12 hours after the precipitation ends (or by the immediately following noon, if the 12-hour period expires between 5:00 pm and 5:00 am).

  • Sidewalks should be cleared to a minimum width of four feet and, if ice cannot be removed, the pathway should be treated with salt, sand, or other de-icing material.
  • County inspectors (who could be specially trained, unpaid deputy volunteers, such as civic league members) should begin inspection/enforcement patrols no later than 18 hours after the precipitation ends.
  • Properties in violation of the sidewalk ordinance should be photographed, cited, and fined (no warnings) and ordered to comply no later than 36 hours after precipitation ends.
  • Properties not cleared by that point should be cleared by the county within 48-60 hours after precipitation, and the property should be assessed the costs of cleanup.
  • Elderly and disabled property owners and occupants should be able to have snow removed at the county's expense or for a reduced fee. Absent or vacationing property owners should likewise be able to register with the county for a reasonable fee to have snow removed from their sidewalks.
  • Street plowing in Centers and Corridors, and along commuter and school routes, should be done in a manner that will not obstruct sidewalks, bus stops, etc., even if that means that not all roadway lanes will be available. For example, a 2-lane road should be reduced to 1.5 lanes if plowing the full 2 lanes would block an adjoining sidewalk.
36 hours in other areas: All other county property owners (in the Rural and Developing tiers and outside of Centers and Corridors) should be required have snow and ice removed from sidewalks, fire hydrants, and drains within 36 hours after the snowfall.
  • Systematic enforcement by the county of the snow ordinance in these areas would be optional, but inspectors would follow up on reports/complaints from neighbors and cite property owners appropriately.
  • Properties found to be in violation should be ordered to comply within 18 hours following citation, and county cleanup would be provided within 36 hours following citation.
General policies:
  • The County should be fully prepared at all times to handle snowfalls with accumulations of up to 12 inches. If greater accumulation is anticipated, the county's contingency plans should be designed to marshal the necessary outside resources and private contractors so that its regular snow removal time frames are not extended by more than 24-36 hours.
  • All residential roadways in Centers and Corridors and in the Developed Tier should be made truly "passable" (i.e., no more than 3 inches of packed snow and properly salted/sanded) within 24-36 hours after a normal snowfall and should be plowed to bare pavement within 72 hours.
  • The county should implement snowplow-tracking technology, such as that used in Howard County, so that DPW&T and the residents have up-to-date, real-time information on snow removal progress.
  • County officials should post written updates on snow removal progress no fewer than once every eight hours for the duration of a snow emergency. It is inexcusable that even though the snow emergency that was declared on February 5 had still not been lifted as of February 18, the last official snow removal update we received from county officials was at 11:00 a.m. on February 10, in the midst of the second round of the blizzard.
  • Within 6 hours after a declaration of a snow emergency, and before the snow starts to cripple the community, cars parked on snow emergency routes and on the odd-numbered side of non-snow emergency routes should be ticketed and, if they would interfere with snow removal efforts, they should be towed.
Do you have additional or different suggestions?
Bradley Heard is an attorney and citizen activist who resides in the Capitol Heights area of Prince George's County. A native of Virginia Beach and former longtime Atlanta resident, Brad hopes to encourage high-quality, walkable and bikeable development in the inner Beltway region of Prince George's County. 


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Agree in principle on the sidewalk bit, but I have a big suggestion otherwise: after the snow ends, snow emergency and major routes should be fully cleared before work begins on residential roads. Probably the single biggest reason why traffic was a mess as we started digging out earlier this month isn't because people couldn't get out of their subdivisions and's that once they were out, there was noplace to go because the main roads were still not fully cleared.

by Froggie on Feb 26, 2010 2:04 pm • linkreport

In fact, this should be standard practice everywhere.

The regulations should be formulated in such a way that *occupants*, be it owner or renter, should remove the snow. This to make sure that store owners can't point to the property management. Likewise for renters and home-owners. If you're the legitimate user of the building, you have to shovel.

Furthermore, there should be some provisions that people make sure that their shoveling path connects to adjacent paths.

by Jasper on Feb 26, 2010 2:04 pm • linkreport

@Jasper, It's probably not necessary for occumpants to be mentioned directly. Actually, this could make enforcement harder for the city/county. Tax records show who owns the property ... and the threat that the owner will be fined/charged should be sufficient to ensure that the walks get cleaned in that if an owner knows they are liable for an infracture, they will ensure the walks get cleared ... either by doing it themselves, arranging for someone to do it, or putting it in the lease that the tenant will end up paying any fines/fees if they, the tenant, don't clear the walk. There is a clear line of responsibiity here and the city/county only has to look to its tax records to know who to fine.

Conversely, making the occupant responsible opens up the possibility of no one being held accountable ... i.e., the owner will say 'I wasn't there', the tenant in the group house will say 'the lease is under the name of some guys who first rented this place 20 years ago' and the vacant house will have no one responsbile for it.

Of course this is contingent on the city/county actually being prepared to enforce its laws. If it isn't, it doesn't really matter who is technically responsible ... as we learned all too well in the District this winter ... and every winter back as far as I can remember going back many many years.

by Lance on Feb 26, 2010 2:54 pm • linkreport

I think your enforcement strategy is too complex and slow. They have 12 hours, then its photo, request to comply, clear it, and bill the owner. Why not just come by at 12 hours and write a ticket, and every 12 hours thereafter. If nothing is done at 48hrs, clear it and bill them more.

If I park on a snow emergency route, I get ticketed, then I get towed, and I have to pay a daily fee while my car is impounded. The sidewalks are part of the transportation network no less than roads. Why should those who block the sidewalk be better off? Give them equivalent treatment to the roads.

by SJE on Feb 26, 2010 3:07 pm • linkreport

@Jasper, Here's a thought ... they could make everyone connected with a property liable for uncleared walks ... owner(s), property management company(s), tenant, condo/co-op association member, even squatters ... Then it gives the government more than enough people to enforce against, and ups the odds that any one of these folks won't want to be left holding the bag.

That's how lawsuits work ... And they tend to be effective in preventing irresponsible behavior.

by Lance on Feb 26, 2010 3:08 pm • linkreport

Much more simple method of sidewalk enforcement: after 24 hours in commercial areas or 48 hours in residential areas, the city or county clears the snow and mails a bill to the property owner. If the bill is not paid within 90 days, it is "liened" to the property taxes, i.e., the amount owned is added to the owner's property tax bill, and if that is not paid, the owner incurs all of the potential consequences of not paying property taxes, such as a tax lien on the property, seizure and sale, etc.

I should note there is little excuse for not clearing the snow. In my neighborhood in Anne Arundel county, we have elderly and disabled residents but the rest of the neighborhood was pitching in to clear their walks and driveways after every snow. Down the street in front of Home Depot there are usually 20-40 day laborers looking for work, and after the storms, they had shovels in hand. When I was in grade school, I would roam the neighborhood myself offering to shovel and make about $50 per snow storm, plus cookies and hot chocolate ;-) There is no shortage of ways to get your property cleared of snow.

by Alan on Feb 26, 2010 3:22 pm • linkreport

The problem with having all the clearing done by the county is that, in really bad storms, the County might not be able to get out there with the appropriate equipment. Plus, based on past experience, any extra people will be used to clear roads. As a result, you will have a long time before the person clears the snow: time that impacts the rest of the community. The other problem is that it does not adjust for the length of the violation. If you ticket people regularly, those who take the longest to clear will pay the most.

by SJE on Feb 26, 2010 3:40 pm • linkreport

Also, governments might not come to the most efficient solution.

by SJE on Feb 26, 2010 3:42 pm • linkreport

Four feet is pretty wide. Its nice when it gets done, but in reality, a shovel width is all you can really hope for.

I have lived in a variety of places, cities, suburbs, small towns. All of them had snow, all of them had snow removal ordinances, and NONE of them enforced these laws.

That leads me to conclude that enforcing sidewalk shovelling laws might be more difficult that we think.

by urbaner on Feb 26, 2010 3:46 pm • linkreport

one more thing, while it would great if a jurisdiction could swoop in and shovel, then bill the property owner for the cost, the reality is that there simply may not be enough people availble to do the job.

You and I can hire a neighborhood kid to shovel, or hire a few guys standing in front of Home Depot and pay them in cash. But a County or City can't. There are a myriad of hiring and contracting rules they have to deal with. Not to mention unions who will freak at the idea of paying people off the street minimum wage to do a job that unionized workers on the city payroll would otherwise have to do at an overtime rate.

Once in a while, you can get away with it. DC even used some jail inmates during the last storm. But make it policy and it will never fly.

by urbaner on Feb 26, 2010 3:50 pm • linkreport

thanks Bradley, I like it w/1 change: 4 ft seems really a lot. Most sidewalks aren't even 4 ft wide. How about 2.5 ft? Or even "passable by one abreast". I realize a wheel chair needs more width then "one abreast" so maybe that's to narrow but I don't think they need 4 ft. As I said most sidewalks aren't 4 ft.

by Bianchi on Feb 26, 2010 3:51 pm • linkreport

In DC the law is that the entire sidewalk be cleared, irrespective of width. In areas where people take keeping their sidewalks clear of snow seriously, they rarely clear it 'one shovel width'. Usually it the entire sidewalk that gets cleared. But in these areas I'll admit it's maybe because if you don't clear it in Oct/Nov when it first starts snowing, it'll be around till it melts in Apr/May. It's like mowing grass. You wouldn't mow just part of your lawn ... and not the rest ... waiting for the weather to 'take of it' for you, now would you?

When it gets down to it, shovelling snow is not a hard thing. And getting a kid or someone else to do it for you if you are unable to do it is also not a hard thing. Shoveling your sidewalks is a responsibility that comes with owning property adjacent to sidewalks. Just do it ... I'm surprised we even need a law for this it's such a common sense thing to do. Like the writer from Annapolis stated, most people don't make a big deal about shovelling. They just make sure it gets done. DC people like to think of themselves as socially responsible, but the lack of shovelling around here really points to the opposite. Lots of talk and little action ... Sounds like Congress. Oh wait, but we ARE a political town ...

by Lance on Feb 26, 2010 4:25 pm • linkreport

One of the problems with DC's plan is that it seems simply to ratchet up times depending on size. <4" clear in 12 hours. 4-8" clear in 24 and so on (whatever it is). That doesn't work. DC ought to consider other restrictions. For example, at no point did the Mayor actually prohibit driving by non-emergency vehicles. Why not? No one should be driving anywhere and it hampers clearing of snow and creates dangers for everyone. Why not have that in the arsenal?

by ah on Feb 26, 2010 5:04 pm • linkreport

AH: because the Mayor of DC, unlike other jurisdictions, is also answerable to Congress and the Federal Govt. If he banned "non-emergency" vehicles, and Pentagon couldn't be fully staffed, or Rahm Emmanuel couldn't get to work...etc, there would be hell. The Fed Govt required various workers to go into work, whatever the requirements, if they were essential. A local Govt does not have the power to stop that.

by SJE on Feb 26, 2010 5:15 pm • linkreport

@SJE, I seem to remember the banning of non-emergency vehicles in DC in the past. Besides, when you have unattended snow (and ice) covering the streets like we had, you in effect have a ban in effect.

The problem isn't one of lack of equipment or lack of funding. It is simply a lack of knowing what to do when a non-Mid-Altantic snow storm hits. Best example, and I hate to harp, is that you simply don't spray salt around when you're going to be getting a bunch a snow. That may work when you're going to have an inch or less of snow, but it just makes matters worse when you're expecting a regular snow fall. It does just enough melting to produce the slabs of ice that we had to get contract labor in a couple weekends ago to remove. You clear the snow (never letting it accumulate in the first place) and then AFTER it's stopped snowing you use your salt and sand to take stop patches of ice from forming overnight when 'melting' turns to ice. And that's a simple rule that any northerner can tell you. Now why couldn't the people in charge of the plowing crews know that and tell that to their crews? And as for the argument about a lack of equipment, DC has more equipment per mile than many snowbelt cities. And even if it didn't, all it'd need do is bring in contactors with their equipment ... like it ended up having to do.

by Lance on Feb 26, 2010 6:09 pm • linkreport

Well, Lance, I defer to your experience. I do not recall such a thing in DC, although I do in Baltimore. I also know how hard it is for DC govt to get things done in part because of the Feds.

You make a good point about salt. Sand/grit is cheaper than salt, works at lower temperatures, and doesnt pollute the water supply. However, it requires people to slow down and not drive like idiots. Around here, that is hard.

by SJE on Feb 26, 2010 6:40 pm • linkreport

You people should grow up! The region had the most snow it has had in a century, and you are whining about the pace of snow removal. The extent of property damage alone (from falling trees, snow causing roofs to fall in, etc), should tell you that this was a special event. Insurance companies are paying for all claims as the result of a natural catastrophe. Sure, DC, PGC, and MC could remove snow at the pace of, say, Buffalo, NY, but your taxes will soar. Of course, you will then complain about tax hikes.....Smile. Spring is almost here!

by tony smith on Feb 26, 2010 7:37 pm • linkreport

"The region had the most snow it has had in a century"

Funny how these 'once in a century' events seem to recur every 10 years or so in Washington ... Yeah, the 'exceptionalism' of it all will be nuanced slightly differently everytime the snow clearing efforts fail, but the old canard of 'Washington doesn't ever get that kind of snow' is an oft repeated one.

NYC is currently getting the kind of storm we had, and it isn't accustomed to this type of storm anymore than DC is.. Let's see how many weeks that city comes to a standstill because of this storm ...

by Lance on Feb 26, 2010 10:30 pm • linkreport

Bradley -- This is a thoughtful piece and I wish you the best with it. I hope they listen. A few comments/suggestions:

1. I would put more emphasis on your 6th bullet point, which addresses the problem of the government dumping snow into pedestrian space. I think this is a very important point which often is overlooked -- the government may not be able to do everything we want, but it can and should avoid doing harm to its residents. It should not be burdening the rights of pedestrians for the sake of ordinary drivers. I might make an exception to this rule when an emergency vehicle is trying to get down a one-lane street, but otherwise this should be the first order of business.

2. If the government violates rule #1, then it should be responsible for removing any snow it dumps if the owner/occupant shoveled their sidewalks, etc. before the dumping or if the government dumps the snow in a way that makes it unreasonable to expect an individual to remove it (I can't speak to PG county, but I saw this phenomenon several times in DC -- I'd walk down sidewalks that had been shoveled one day (pre-plow) and the next day (after-plow) there'd be a 5-foot iceberg in my way).

3. I'd put the width for clearance at whatever is needed for 2 wheelchairs to pass each other, or the full sidewalk, whichever applies. I also suggest tying any fine to income/assets (it should be high enough to motivate people to comply) and increasing the fine if they don't comply within the timeframe given -- say (for the first group), a 1% fine if the sidewalk isn't cleared within 12 hours (=$1000 for someone with $100K in income/assets) and jump it to 5% ($5000) plus costs of cleanup after the 36 hours is up. That probably needs some fine-tuning, but you get the idea. The proceeds of the fines also could be put into a fund which is used to pay the costs of cleanup or other related expenses for people who are truly unable to comply (perhaps use the $$ to set up a volunteer exchange).

4. Suspend and then debar (if they do not comply) anyone (or any business) who fails to clear their sidewalks, etc. from contracting with the county.

5. Do your recommendations address sidewalks, etc. for which the local/state/federal government is responsible? It's not clear to me on that point, so I recommend making it clear. Maybe one recommendation could be for the county or state to open discussions with Federal agencies on this issue?

6. Any owner/occupant who dumps snow from their driveway or street parking spot onto the sidewalk should face a heftier fine -- let's say double what they might pay if they had simply done nothing.

7. These final points go not so much to snow removal as to the consequences for pedestrians and drivers if there are no improvements: suspend enforcement of anti-jaywalking laws and provide that pedestrians have right of way whenever sidewalks are not fully unavailable in an area; and, depending upon the specific circumstances, either prosecute any failure to give right of way to a pedestrian as a crime or, at the very least, impose a more significant fine (say double the usual fine). And publicize these rules -- they would go at least a little way toward righting the inequities peds face now, with the government turning all of us into jaywalkers.

by Eileen on Feb 27, 2010 12:13 am • linkreport

1. I'd recommend you consider my writings on the subject.

2. You don't mention multiuser trails. In the urban area of the county and for routes with high transportational use, snow clearance should be prioritized.

by Richard Layman on Feb 27, 2010 7:18 am • linkreport

Lance: last I checked, this region hasn't had this much snow since records were first kept 130 years ago. I don't know where you can go off saying this occurs every 10 years or so, unless you're referring to individual snowstorms. But that doesn't take into account that we had 3 major snowstorms (6+ inches as measured at Nat'l) inside of a 2 week period...with a fourth snowfall of 3 inches mixed in for good measure.

Regarding Eileen's comments, something I've noticed in this area is that the sidewalks are both relatively narrow and immediately next to the curb, in no small part due to the narrow right-of-way of the streets. This makes it difficult to effectively plow the street without impacting the sidewalk. Doing so is possible, but requires a lot of extra equipment (even with bringing in private contractor help) and is a very slow process as well...there's no way you could clear the streets in such a fashion within 72 hours, let alone 36.

Street ROW widths in New York City are noticeably wider (especially in Manhattan), so they don't have this plowed-snow-dumping-on-sidewalk problem to the same extent. Nor does Minneapolis (my hometown). Minneapolis has fairly wide ROW widths downtown. And outside of downtown, most sidewalks are set back from the curb by 3-6 feet, so we didn't have the problem of the plows pushing snow up to the sidewalks except at the corners, whose clearing is the responsibility of the corner lot owner.

Also, most of us from northern climates know what to do when the plows push snow onto the sidewalk or driveway (as it did often when they'd plow our alley)...we simply go out and clear it off again. Is it fair? That's arguable (as is occurring in this thread and previous threads), but that's the expectation of everyone involved, so we just go get it done.

by Froggie on Feb 27, 2010 7:35 am • linkreport

"Also, most of us from northern climates know what to do when the plows push snow onto the sidewalk or driveway"

... exactly ... and that gets to the point that I am trying really hard to make. We (as Washingtonians) are reaching for reasons why it couldn't be done rather than just doing it.

And yes, I mentioned 'nuanced' in my once every 10 years statement. This year the excuse is that we had the most snow in one season. Last time it might have been that it was came down the fastest it ever had. I think you get the idea. Let's just clean it off as is done everywhere else using the public/private partnership that works elsewhere. We the citizenry cleanup in front of our homes and businesses, and the government cleans up the roads and parks and other city/county assets. We, most importantly, we hold each other responsible for not doing our part. Citizens get fines and government directors get disciplined/rewarded according. Just no excuses.

by Lance on Feb 27, 2010 8:24 am • linkreport

the reason I mentioned my post on the subject ("maintenance of way") is because it discusses safe routes to and between particular types of places, which your post doesn't really mention at all, e.g., transit.

WRT transit, when I first read this story, a PG example, I was struck once again about my point about maintaining safe routes to transit needing to be a priority for snow clearance in walkable communities:

by Richard Layman on Feb 27, 2010 11:19 am • linkreport

I too agree that the sidewalks should be cleared, but when we talk about fines I have issues. I would not mind paying a fine if it is fair on both side. Will I be able to fine the county could fine the county if I don't have a passable lane on my street.

Was there enough forsight for the county to give county and contract plowers a memo as to what was expected. When you have 4 feet of snow plowed at an intersection, who can see over it. Should the plowers have be given instructions to pile the snow at least 3 feet from the corner, especially on a street that is not control by a traffic light.

I called at 4:00 pm on Feb 12th, I guess I could call myself fortunate that a small pickup truck did come down my street The truck was so small it was weaving down the street plow barely touching the snow. What a waste of the $0.50 in gas it cost to come down my street. Would it not make more sense to spend $1.00 or $1.50 in gas to make the street passable.

My street got what I call a non plow event. No wonder our county exceeded the snow budget, we are paying good money for the snow plows for NON PLOW EVENTS.

The weatherpersons were correct this time, there was plenty of warning. Even if the county did not believe it we should have been better prepared.

by Brenda on Feb 28, 2010 12:29 am • linkreport

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