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Cheh, Wells try again to fix snow fines

Mary Cheh and Tommy Wells reintroduced a bill this morning to set up fines for failing to clear sidewalks.

During last year's storms, many residents and businesses toiled to keep their sidewalks clear, but some did not. The biggest offenders were commercial properties like this parking lot or this apartment building, where one tenant told us the property owner didn't care much about clearing the sidewalk.

Not shoveling creates serious obstacles for people with even minor difficulty walking, and can make people with more significant disabilities unable to get around at all. One way or another, we need to make sure sidewalks get clear.

This bill lets DC impose a fine on a property owner of $25 for a residential property and $250 for a business. Under current law, DC has to clear the sidewalk, then bring a lawsuit to recover its costs, and can only recover $25.

By changing the penalty to a more simple fine, DC can more easily levy the penalty. And if they don't pay the fines, Cheh wants to establish a collections unit (or are they bounty hunters? to go after them. But the real value will come if this actually entices property owners, especially the big company-run apartment buildings, large parking lots, and other large-scale operations, to take their shoveling responsibility seriously.

Then, on to the task of getting the National Park Service to clear sidewalks next to its own property.

David Alpert is the founder of Greater Greater Washington and its board president. 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 two children in Dupont Circle. 


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Sounds like a great idea!

In addition to the NPS probs, I'd suspect we also have District government entities equally disregarding the requirement ... for example, in and along city parks (which are handled by 2 different entities within the District government.) Making 'commerical' fines (i.e.. $250) payable by the respective directors of these organizations would ensure they got cleared. And if it's not legal to tie it directly to a director, then make the fine (much)bigger ($10,000?) and leverage the threat of requiring that funding in the amount of the fine be returned to the DC treasury. (I.e., reduce their budgets retro-actively). And then re-allocate the funds to snow clearing efforts including cleaning up scafflow's uncleared sidewalks!

Incidentally, I was happy to see a lot of 'Call us to shovel your snow' signs going up in the neighborhood over the last couple weeks. It's probably the first time I've seen this in Washington. Maybe all the complaints from last year have incentivized some folks to cash in on snow removal.

One final thought ... The two level of fines don't do much to address what was one of the most serious sources of unshovelled sidewalks last year: group houses. I.e., the big old houses where it looks like a house, but acts like an apartment (at least on the outside.) In the ones I noticed near me, even though they seemed to have an abundance of younger, able-bodied folks in them, the sidewalks in front of these houses never seemed to get shovelled. If they get fined line a residence, the landlord (if an absentee landlord) will probably just absorb the $25 fee rather than arrange to have the snow cleared. If the expectation is that it can be fined like a 'business', then I have to ask the question 'how will the folks doing the fining know to fine it like a business ... since it looks like a house ...' (Btw, I'm assuming you're including apartment houses as businesses even though they are residential?)

by Lance on Jan 4, 2011 2:52 pm • linkreport

As someone who had leg surgery last winter, and had to trudge around for weeks finding scant purchase all over town, I say amen to this proposal.

Also, $25 fine—that's it? That's how much I'd have to pay the neighborhood kids to do it for me.

by cactus on Jan 4, 2011 2:54 pm • linkreport


On the topic of "Call us to shovel your snow" -- Our neighborhood has started to formally promote volunteer snow shovel services for those physically unable to shovel. Already, we have matched several senior citizens and others who need help with generous volunteer shovelers. Every bit helps.

by Mitch Wander on Jan 4, 2011 3:01 pm • linkreport

I've lived in Washington for a long time, and the National Park Service has never done a damned thing to clear the miles of sidewalks adjacent to their properties.

by Herschel on Jan 4, 2011 3:28 pm • linkreport

Good idea. Both on the collections as well as the fines. Fines need to be higher though, otherwise large property owners will laughingly pay their 'get out of jail shoveling' fee.

by Jasper on Jan 4, 2011 3:31 pm • linkreport

If you shovel your sidewalk and then the city ploughs bury it in ice, is it fair to make you pay a fine for not shoveling it again?

by JimT on Jan 4, 2011 3:36 pm • linkreport

I am not sure why a business owner has to pay more - a fall is a fall. IMHO, the biggest offenders have been individual homeowners who just don't care. I say increase the fines and setup a phone number, if one doesn't already exist, where citizens can report offenders.

by snowpeas on Jan 4, 2011 3:39 pm • linkreport


That kind of mentality is exactly what's wrong with DC and snow.

It's your responsibility to keep your sidewalk clean regardless of the conditions.

One thing that's not clear to me for the fines is how often they are assessed. Some cities issue a fine each and every day if snow is not shoveled. If you wait 5 days, you have 5 days worth of tickets.

by Alex B. on Jan 4, 2011 3:41 pm • linkreport

@Mitch Our neighborhood has started to formally promote volunteer snow shovel services for those physically unable to shovel.

Just curious ... are you means testing the requests? Lots of retirees (and others unable to shovel) have lots of disposable income ... while lots of younger folkes don't.

by Lance on Jan 4, 2011 3:44 pm • linkreport


Our neighborhood citizen's association and volunteers are providing services to any senior citizen who requests assistance.

We are also in the process of establishing a neighborhood organization to ensure that our senior citizens have access to appropriate services and public infrastructure. We want to make our neighborhood a great place to live for all residents - regardless of age or family composition.

by Mitch Wander on Jan 4, 2011 3:53 pm • linkreport

The fines should be substantially more than what it would cost to hire someone to shovel; I have no idea what the going rates for snow removal are.

Another issue is the connectivity of snow removal from sidewalks to crosswalks. Are (corner) property owners currently required to shovel out ramp part of the sidewalk that goes to the street?

Perhaps one way to encourage compliance with the group homes would be that only homes receiving the homestead deduction on property taxes would qualify for the $25 fine. Although I suspect there are a lot of cheaters on this. It would hit regular rentals as well, but it would impress upon the landlords that there needs to be a clear understanding between them and their tenants of the responsibility for snow removal.

by thm on Jan 4, 2011 3:56 pm • linkreport

@AlexB. Would you care to elaborate on why you think that people who fail to clean up after city ploughs are a culpable as those who fail to shovel fresh snow?

by JimT on Jan 4, 2011 4:02 pm • linkreport


I didn't say that. I said it's a resident's responsibility to clear the snow. Period.

If a resident clears everything and then a plow makes a hump near a crosswalk, they're obviously not as culpable as someone who didn't shovel at all.

The point is that it really doesn't matter. Nitpicking about who should be blamed in this instance is wasted effort. Pick up a tool and start shoveling.

This is DC's biggest shortcoming. Cities that get lots of snow have a shoveling culture. It's just something you do on a regular basis. And yes, in most cities, the resident is also responsible for that plow debris.

Too much of the talk I hear amongst DC residents is how to do the minimum and do it with the least amount of work. I remember during the snowstorms going out to shovel every few hours, since I know (from hard experience) that shoveling 5 inches of snow four separate times is a lot easier than trying to shovel 20 inches of snow all at once.

So, that's one problem with DC - no snow culture, and success is envisioned as a set amount of work time put in.

The other issue is that people don't know what to expect from snow removal. A plow will pass; your street has now been plowed. You shouldn't expect to then be able to easily drive your low-ground clearance, rear-wheel drive car in these conditions. All plowing does is move snow around, not melt it. Again, this is where a lack of a snow culture comes in. It's completely understandable, given DC's climate.

by Alex B. on Jan 4, 2011 4:32 pm • linkreport

@Lance, thm

I had the exact opposite experience! My group housemates and I shoveled the sidewalk in front of our house and the currently vacant one next to it, and several of the other group houses on our block and the next one shoveled their walks. But the three houses in a row down the block from me that all have able-bodied people and kids living in them didn't shovel, and the sidewalk in front of those houses was an uneven, icy mess. In hindsight I wish I had just shoveled the entire block.

But by all means, we should definitely have different rules for the landed gentry vs. those who rent, because we know those kids can't be trusted! Sounds like silly excessive bureaucracy to me. Which do you think would result in more fines assessed? Having everyone have the same fine? Or having to go and look up whether the people who own there live in the house or not and then give them a different fine based on that information? What a waste of time just so you can avoid an extra $75 when you don't shovel.

Seriously just make the fine $100 or whatever for everyone. Even in places where it snows a lot (Twin Cities) people only get tickets for not shoveling if their neighbors call the city to complain. You aren't going to be able to force people in DC to shovel because 1. the likelihood of getting a fine is going to be low, 2. people won't be conditioned to do it b/c it doesn't snow often and the snow usually melts within a matter of a couple days.

by MLD on Jan 4, 2011 4:49 pm • linkreport

Hooray! As long as the enforcement is uniformly applied it looks like we have good policy!

Uncleared sidewalks were definitely a hindrance to the clean up last February. Pedestrians were forced to walk in the streets in many areas just because of lazy owners. Another thing they might want to tackle is the horrible clean up job WMATA, the DC Govt and NPS do on sidewalks next to their land. Many bus stops and sidewalks abutting parkland went nearly 2 weeks without clean up.

by John on Jan 4, 2011 5:02 pm • linkreport

How about using chain gangs of prisoners from the DC jail to clean up cross walks and storm drains and other obstructions left by the plow?

by Lucy on Jan 4, 2011 5:43 pm • linkreport

And please, please, please no typical DC escape clause for churches. I swear after both snowstorms last year you needed alpine skis to get past Kelsey Temple and associated properties in Columbia Heights, long after everyone else had cleared the sidewalks.

by John on Jan 4, 2011 6:43 pm • linkreport

Just about everyone who works for a living could be sorely inconvenienced if the current regulation were enforced. You have to clear snow within 8 hours from when snowfall stops. But you're away from home for 9+commuting hours -- and after snow falls, commuting takes longer.

Maybe there is a reliable but generally idle person on your block who will agree to shovel your snow if it stops falling during your "danger zone" window of morning hours. But since snow almost never falls, and reliable people are generally already working, it's a hard case to contract out for.

Hopefully, stepped-up enforcement will be paired with a relaxed regulation that employed people would be able to comply with... such as 24 hours. (Last February, the severe problems emerged only after a couple of days, when pedestrian traffic returned to normal even as sidewalks remained impassable.)

by Turnip on Jan 4, 2011 8:31 pm • linkreport

@thm Perhaps one way to encourage compliance with the group homes would be that only homes receiving the homestead deduction on property taxes would qualify for the $25 fine.

That's a great idea for how to distinguish owner-occupied from none-owner occupied (even if the data itself isn't fully reliable.)

@MLD Seriously just make the fine $100 or whatever for everyone.

I agree with you. I'm not sure why the use of a property should matter in determining the level of the fine. Unless someone is thinking 'they have deeper pockets so let's punish them harder?' I can see why we'd want to be sure out of town owners got the message that their sidewalk needs to be shoveled, and <>maybe assessing a higher fee based on that is justifiable since a stronger reminder might be needed for someone who isn't actually in DC to know it's snowing out ... and it's time to clear your sidewalk. Hence why group houses need to be treated no different from apartment houses where there also isn't an owner around.

But now that I'm re-reading the post, I'm not sure the criteria are making sense. So, it's 'residence' vs. 'business' ... and an apartment house which is a residence by definition gets treated like a 'business' ... which really isn't a property type to beging with .. it's a use. Maybe David meant 'residential' vs. 'commercial'? But then if he did, apartment houses wouldn't be included.

Let's just solve the issue by charging a fine based on linear feet of sidewalk in front (or on the side of) a property. Let's say it was set a $10 per linear foot, someone in a rowhouse with 20 feet of frontage would get fined $200 (a decent incentive to either do it yourself or have a snow cleaning individual/neighbor under contract) ... where a corner apartment building or store or whatever with 100 feet in front and 40 feet on the side would get fined $1,400 ...

by Lance on Jan 4, 2011 9:16 pm • linkreport

"the horrible clean up job WMATA, the DC Govt and NPS do on sidewalks next to their land"

I think this criticism of the DC government is really off-base. They did great. They cleared the sidewalks on the Taft and Ellington bridges and kept them clear! When did that ever happen before? They cleared the walkways through Walter Pierce Park. They plowed the side-streets. None of that happened in the great snows of 1996. That winter, they plowed the snow up off the bridge roadways onto the sidewalks, leaving snow and ice three to four feet deep on the sidewalks for weeks.

The NPS did nothing, as usual. Most of the sidewalks in the city adjacent to parks are adjacent to parks controlled by the NPS. They suck suck suck.

by Herschel on Jan 4, 2011 9:19 pm • linkreport

@Turnip - When there is a serious snowfall, everyone who works away from home for a living is inconvenienced. Whether the regulations are enforced or not.

If you shovel before you leave for work, and shovel again when you get home, you are in compliance with the 8-hour rule for all practical purposes. Theoretically, if the snow stops an hour after you leave, you might be in violation, but in that case there will just be a dusting of snow on the sidewalk so nobody will complain.

by Ben Ross on Jan 4, 2011 9:24 pm • linkreport

In my opinion, the root issue is that property owners should not be the ones responsible for clearing sidewalks--it should be the city's responsibility. We wouldn't charge residents and proprietors with the task of clearing the street in front of their homes and businesses, because we know the whole street would never be cleared, causing vehicles would collide and people to be injured. Therefore, why take that approach with sidewalks? If walking is an equal mode of transportation, then the city must give sidewalks equal treatment to roadways.

by Phil LaCombe on Jan 4, 2011 11:50 pm • linkreport

Are sidewalks transporation or an amenity associated with property? Part of the logic is that sidewalks are for people in the immediate neighborhood, and hence their maintenance can be required without it being a constitutional exaction under the traditional reciprocol advantage doctrine. Many neighborhoods do not have sidewalks, as the property owners (at some point) decided not to have them.

East Capitol Street, by contrast, is for the benefit of a much larger population, many of whom live in Maryland. So it would be an unconstitutional exaction to require people there to pay for the cost of its upkeep. In the suburbs, sidewalks that are mostly for the benefit or people who do not live near them are often made a bit wider than normal and called "multiuse trails" and the locality picks up the maintainance cost. In a few cases, Safe Routes to School programs have been unable to get sidewalks built because property owners strongly opposed them--mainly because they did not want to maintain them. (In Frederick Co. the proposed sidewalk was along a road behind the fenced back yards and the property owners would never use them.)

In the middle of this spectrum are neighborhood roads, which could be the responsibility of either the locality or the landowners. In some communities, these roads are indeed privately owned, but in DC and most areas, most of the local roads are public roads.

Still, regardless of how the maintainance responsibility is allocated, there is a certain logic for requiring all citizen to shovel--they are there and in a better position to correct the problem.

@AlexB and I will just have to agree to disagree, however, on whether the city should be allowed to dump snow on a sidewalk and then fine the owner for not cleaning up its mess. For me, the incantation "property owner's responsibility" ignores other maxims, such as duty to mitigate, and the entrapment defense.

by JimT on Jan 5, 2011 8:23 am • linkreport

These fines are way too small. Our condo assoc. has a nearly $6 million budget. If the city were to fine us $250 no one would notice it. Last winter I had to walk home past St. Albans, the Saudi residence, and other big places that hadn't cleared their sidewalks. Do you think they'd care about $250?

(That said, our condo crew kept the sidewalks clear the entire time of the blizzard. Just as they do every time it snows.)

by rdhd on Jan 5, 2011 8:40 am • linkreport

Good idea - if done right. Key is going to be actual enforcement.

And the city can't fine either the Feds or any embassy for failure to shovel.

by Fritz on Jan 5, 2011 10:53 am • linkreport

I like the proposed bill except the amount. $25 seems too little for the potential harm, and is unlikely to attract much enforcement. If it was $50, then it would be worthwhile for the city to send inspectors out.

by SJE on Jan 5, 2011 3:50 pm • linkreport

Can DC Governt agencies be fined ?

During the aftermath of the storm I saw many sidewalks infront of DC parks, schools and other land.

Does anyone know do ADA requirements apply during snow storms cause if so someone should be getting fired for all the mountains of snow at curbs.

by kk on Jan 5, 2011 11:27 pm • linkreport

I propose additional fines for any resident who clears out a parked car and then after pulling away from the cleared space tries to reserve it for his own when he or she returns. The parking space is city owned and for the benefit of anybody wishing to park there. I live on a snow emergency route, and thus am required to move my car to a side street when there is a major snow, however neighbors think they own the spaces in front of their houses on the side streets, especially after having dug out their cars. Not fair, not neighborly, and I'm not having it...

by KevinM on Jan 6, 2011 6:48 am • linkreport

It appears that DC Code (pasted below) attempts to require the NPS to conduct snow removal for sidewalks adjacent to nearly all US government buildings and properties. My guess is that it would take an act of Congress with adequate funding for NPS to take this seriously. I think that DC needs Congressional intervention to make this happen. This snow removal would ensure continued operation of federal facilities and safe use of sidewalks by federal workers (and others).

District of Columbia Official Code 2001 Edition Currentness
Division I. Government of District.
Title 9. Transportation Systems. (Refs & Annos)
Subtitle I. Highways, Bridges, Streets, and Alleys.
Chapter 6. Removal of Snow and Ice from Streets and Sidewalks.
§ 9-603. Removal from sidewalks adjacent to federal buildings.

It shall be the duty of the Director of National Park Service within the first 8 hours of daylight after the ceasing to fall of any snow or sleet, or after the accumulation of ice upon the paved sidewalks within the fire limits of the District of Columbia, to remove or cause to be removed from such sidewalks as are in front of or adjacent to all buildings owned or leased by the United States, except the Capitol buildings and grounds and the Library of Congress building, and from all paved sidewalks or Search Term Begin crosswalks Search Term End used as public thoroughfares in front of, around, or through all public squares, reservations, or open spaces within the fire limits of the District of Columbia, owned or Best Section Begin leased by the United States, such snow, sleet, and ice; but in the event of inability to remove such accumulation of snow, sleet, and ice, by reason of the hardening thereof, without injury to the sidewalk, it shall be his duty, within the first 8 hours of daylight after the hardening of such snow, sleet, and ice, to make reasonably safe for travel, or cause to be made reasonably safe for travel, by the sprinkling of sand or ashes thereon, such paved sidewalks and Search Term Begin crosswalks, Search Term End and shall, as soon thereafter as the weather shall permit, thoroughly clean said sidewalks and Search Term Begin crosswalks.

by Mitch Wander on Jan 6, 2011 6:59 am • linkreport

@ Mitch Wander-
Fat chance we have for Congressional intervention with regard to requiring snow removal, being that "the people", meaning any and all of you out there that did not do everything in your power to keep Democrats in charge, decided to let the Republicans get their feet back in the door, so-to-speak. What could folks have been thinking to let the "party of NO" back in? In recent years not one Republican has had one constructive idea to move this country forward. Shame on any of you who are Republicans(except you robber barons- you know who you are, and it's your party, after all), or even Democrats that didn't get involved and try to convince any and all Republicans the error of their ways. There is absolutely no way any person who works for a living would have any reason to vote Republican- that is cutting off your nose to spite your face. That said, we can look forward to less cooperation and support from Congress in the next few years, not more. Don't blame me- I volunteered and voted for Democrats all the way.

by KevinM on Jan 6, 2011 8:10 am • linkreport

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