Snow removal thoughts

At tonight’s City Council meeting we have a proposed change to our snow removal ordinance.

There are multiple goals that we are trying to manage here. On the one hand, we clearly want sidewalks that allow safe passage for all users after snowfall. We also need to consider the demands on residents and property owners. Can someone working a 12-hour shift reasonably comply? Can someone who is elderly, has a disability, or is low income?

To that end, the draft amendment that is before us tonight makes several changes. It

  • Closes a loophole in the requirement that the City give a warning before issuing a citation so that a warning is only required once per season rather than once per snow event (the current ordinance language creates a loophole that prevents ticketing when there are frequent snows);
  • Clarifies that property owners are responsible for clearing snow from bus stops and crosswalk approaches;
  • Clarifies that ice that cannot be removed can be treated with sand or ice melt until such time as it can be removed;
  • Requires people in residential areas to remove compacted snow greater than 1/2 inch;
  • Creates an 18-hour requirement for the removal treatment of ice from sidewalks;
  • Clarifies that sidewalks on public land must be cleared to the highest standard of the adjacent properties;
  • Affirms that city employees have discretion in issuing citations so long as there is reasonably unimpeded passage on the sidewalk;

For me, the most important of these is closing the loophole around the warning requirements. Two years ago we faced a winter with frequent snowfalls. This created a situation in which it became impossible to issue citations against property owners who refused to clear their walks Each new snow event “reset the clock” and required a new warning before a new citation could be issued.

I believe that all of the changes listed above are important and I would like to see them move forward. That said, there are two main issues on which I hear considerable debate yet:

  • What is the threshold for clearing snow? The ordinance currently on the books sets a 1 inch threshold–If there is less than 1 inch of snow you don’t have to shovel. The current proposal sets the threshold as 1 inch of uncompacted snow or 1/2 inch of compacted snow. Some argue that the standard should be complete snow removal. Others argue that a light dusting of snow does not impede mobility and that the requirement to remove all snow would significantly increase the costs for people who pay for snow removal and would unduly burden people with physical limitations.
  • What should the timeframe be for snow clearing? The proposed ordinance has different requirements for residential and non-residential areas and for the time for clearing snow versus treating ice in residential areas. Some argue that the various standards are confusing and that the 24-hour clearing requirement in residential areas is too long. Others argue that it is legitimate to hold commercial properties to a higher snow removal standard and that it is appropriate to treat the different conditions differently.

OK, still with me? There’s one more factor to consider in all this, the implementation timeline.  If we make significant changes to the snow removal threshold we need to engage in a public education effort before we start issuing tickets. We have already missed the window that would have given staff enough time to conduct public education for this season. I do not believe, however, that we need a public education campaign to close the “frequent snowfall loophole.” If a property owner obstinately refuses to clear their walks, I don’t think we should let a dusting of snow every other allow them to dodge compliance. That’s why I would like to make what improvements we can and, if necessary, come back to the issues of threshold and timeframe.


P.S. I’ve just seen the text of one of the action alerts on this issue. While I applaud the author’s work to organize voices in support of accessible sidewalks, there are a few errors in the alert.

Error 1–one warning per season: The alert states “The current ordinance in force allows offenders one warning per snow event. The Task Force recommendation is to make it only one warning per winter season, before a property can be fined. This is incorrect. The proposed ordinance language actually does change the standard from one warning per snow event to one warning warning per season through changes to section 4:61(1).

Error 2–ice removal: The alert states that “The new draft ordinance ELIMINATES the requirement to remove ice, retaining merely a requirement to “treat the ice…to prevent it from being slippery”. The full text of the proposed language is:

all snow and ice which has accumulated … on a public sidewalk …shall be removed…. The owner or occupant of the property shall also remove snow and ice from walks and ramps that are at bus stops or that lead to a marked or unmarked crosswalk. Provided that when ice has so formed upon any sidewalk, walk or ramp that it cannot be removed, then the owner or occupant shall keep the same effectively sprinkled with sand, salt or other suitable substance in such manner as to prevent the ice from being dangerous, until such time as it can be removed, and then it shall be promptly removed.

The proposed change does still require removal of ice, but recognizes that there are conditions in which the ice adheres to the sidewalk and cannot be cleared in the relevant window. You may think this change is unwise, but it is not an elimination of the ice removal requirement.

On the topic of multiple standards within the document, I agree that there is room to improve the clarity, but I also think it is fair to hold commercial properties to a higher standard of snow clearing than residential ones.

You can read the proposed amendment online at: