Fines for snowy sidewalks abound this harsh winter
By KEVIN RECTOR and The Baltimore Sun
Feb 25, 2014 | 7:36 PM
Custodians at the Church of the Redeemer have struggled this winter to keep its sidewalks clear of snow, but the one flush against North Charles Street in Homeland — buried by nearly every plow that passes — proved too much.
The city issued the church a citation for failing to clear the walk.
"One of our custodians has been here 30 years, and he doesn't ever recall having that happen before," said Ellen Chatard, program director at the church.
It has been a snowy winter with 26.5 inches through Tuesday — nearly 10 inches more than average — and another 1 to 3 inches forecast for Wednesday morning. Hundreds of citations and warnings have been issued to residents, businesses and other property owners for failing to comply with laws that require them to clear their sidewalks of snow.
In Baltimore, where residents have three hours after a snowfall to clear sidewalks adjacent to their properties, housing inspectors have issued about 200 citations, said Cheron Porter, a Baltimore Housing spokeswoman.
The citations are based on laws to ensure access to public sidewalks used by residents, including school children.
In snow removal plans and on county websites throughout the region, officials say they rely on residents to do their part in winter cleanups. This winter, Baltimore and other jurisdictions throughout Central Maryland have reported overspending by millions on clearing snow.
Other winter woes also abound.
The city, for example, has endured two straight months of record levels of water main breaks; city transportation crews have filled 30,000 potholes since December, and are filling 300 more every day; calls to the city's non-emergency 311 service have spiked, with 5,000 logged in a single day after this month's major snowstorm.
Of those, 1,443 were for "snow or icy conditions."
While officials say they only target homeowners when sidewalk complaints are filed, and provide leeway for the elderly and those with disabilities, some see the enforcement as heavy-handed.
Chatard, for example, said church officials "feel that we act as responsibly as we possibly can to get our area cleared out," but sometimes — like during the snowstorm earlier this month, which dumped about a foot and a half of snow — the task is daunting.
The church has spent thousands of dollars — "well over our budget" — for plowing parking areas this winter, Chatard said. Even with snow blowers, its two custodians "just can't move the icy sludge" that builds up on sidewalks.
City plows working Charles Street repeatedly push snow back onto the sidewalks as well, she said, making the task seem overwhelming.
"We feel for those who need to walk there," Chatard said, "but it's a little bit beyond our capabilities."
The citation the church received was one of 196 the city had issued as of last week, Porter said — an increase from last year, when just one person was cited, and 2012, when none were. The past two winters only produced about 10 inches of snow combined.
Big citation numbers haven't been seen since 2011, when a whopping 541 were issued, thanks to the city's being particularly "proactive in the commercial districts" that year, Porter said. There were 212 citations in 2010 — when record-setting snow fell.
Homeowners are fined $50, while commercial property owners are fined $100.
Porter said city inspectors have been "actively inspecting" the commercial corridors for icy sidewalks this winter but haven't been as proactive about targeting homeowners.
In residential neighborhoods, she said, inspectors only respond to complaints, and even then they tread lightly.
"We try to be judicious, because we don't know what the situation might be behind the door of the home. It may be elderly folks," Porter said. "It's not a 'gotcha' moment."
Data show plenty of homeowners have been cited, though, from Federal Hill to Morrell Park, The Orchards to Arlington. Major property owners have been cited too, including the Maryland Jockey Club, which operates Pimlico Race Course.
Mike Gathagan, a club spokesman, said it paid the fine.
"No excuses, but to our defense we are not racing at Pimlico until April 3," Gathagan said in an email. "Our facilities department was focused on the operations at Laurel Park."
Multiple individual homeowners who received citations in the city did not respond to a request for comment.
Meanwhile, the city has received complaints about its efforts as well.
Days after the recent big snowstorm, one 311 complainant called Medfield Heights Elementary "a mess" because piles of snow were still blocking the parking lot: "Someone needs to plow this snow so people can park or pull over to pick these kids up and drop off."
"This winter has been an extremely brutal season and has kept us busy in our efforts to maintain safety on our roadways, repair water main breaks and resolve 311 service requests submitted by our residents," said Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake in a statement on this winter's effects.
She also thanked city residents "who have been very cooperative during these past couple of months plagued with cold temperatures and snow accumulation."
Winter sidewalk rules vary throughout the region.
In Baltimore County, property owners have 24 hours from "the last flake of the storm" to shovel out their sidewalks, said Lionel van Dommelen, the county's chief of code enforcement.
He said his department took over enforcement of the law this winter and does not have citation data from previous years. This winter, the county has issued 119 letters to property owners "informing them of the law and the potential penalties and advising them to clear their pathways," he said.
The letter is a warning before a citation is issued, he said. Most of the property owners who received letters shoveled immediately, he said. Only five citations — charging $25 per day of noncompliance — have been issued, and all of those were resolved with the property owners eventually shoveling as well, he said.
"We want compliance," van Dommelen said. "We're not interested in fines; we want safe walkways for the public, for kids going to school."
Like the city's residential enforcement, he said, the county's enforcement is complaint-based.
"With the thousands and thousands of miles of road in the county, and equal that or double that in sidewalks, we really can't get out to every sidewalk," van Dommelen said. "So we really rely on the citizens to complain."
In Harford County, no ordinance requires residents to clear sidewalks, officials said, but there are such laws in towns, including Bel Air, which requires residents to clear sidewalks within 24 hours of a snowfall.
Randolph Robertson, director of the town's public works department, said he didn't have statistics on citations issued, and that usually police reach out to homeowners and businesses to ask them to shovel.
In Anne Arundel County, residents have six hours to clear their sidewalks, unless the snow falls overnight, in which case they have until 11 a.m. the following day, said Matt Diehl, a county public works spokesman. Police handle enforcement, but could not provide citation data.
Annapolis, which requires property owners to clear snow within three hours of storms, has issued citations to seven businesses this winter, but none to homeowners, said Rhonda Wardlaw, a city spokeswoman.
Carroll County passed an ordinance in 2004 requiring residents to clear sidewalks within 12 hours of a snowfall, unless the snow falls overnight, in which case they have until 6 p.m. the following day.
The law carries a $100 fine for non-compliance, but no citation has ever been issued, said Roberta Windham, a spokeswoman for the county commissioners' office. Some towns in Carroll have their own laws.
In Howard County, residents have 48 hours to shovel. Police "encourage compliance" but "cannot recall having to issue anyone a citation," said Mark Miller, a county spokesman.
The county's website recommends residents file complaints with the county as a "last resort."
Before doing so, it urges, residents should contact property owners and inform them of the law — or better yet, ask them if they need help shoveling.