Unenforced: Sidewalk scofflaws slip by ordinance... again

What city ordinance can be most easily flouted without any repercussions? Charlottesville pedestrians would probably pick the law that requires shoveling of sidewalks within six hours after snow stops.

Even five days after the President's Day weekend snowstorm, several city sidewalks were blatantly unshoveled or piled high with plowed snow.

How does the city plan to enforce its ordinance, violation of which is a "class 1" misdemeanor carrying penalties of up to a $2,500 fine and/or 12 months in jail?

"What we're going to do is send out notes through code inspectors in neighborhood development, and through police and community service officers," says city spokesman Maurice Jones.

Seventeen letters were handed out on February 21 to businesses and residents who had not cleared their walks. "We were giving them a day to do it, and then they'd get a ticket," says Jones. However, with the rain over the weekend, "it looks like it was taken care of by Mother Nature," he says.

How many people have been ticketed this winter for not clearing their sidewalks?

"I am not aware of any on the daylight shift," says Sergeant S.L. Dillon at the Charlottesville Police Department.

"If people call and complain, we advise people to clear their walks," says Dillon. "If there's no response, we will issue summons. We try to give people a little leeway. We don't want to be draconian."

Dillon says police got very few calls about uncleared sidewalks, and he's frank about the priority of enforcing the sidewalk ordinance during a snowstorm. "We have emergency calls that require our action. We don't have time to be dropping summons for sidewalks," he says.

If people do have a complaint, says Jones, they should call the city manager's office at 970-3101 or police at 970-3280.

The Hook attempted to contact several sidewalk offenders to see if the city's lax enforcement was a factor in their ignoring the ordinance. Union Station on West Main has received complaints about its chronically snow-covered sidewalks since the first snow back in December. Owner Gabe Silverman did not return The Hook's phone calls.

Two other local commercial property owners contacted on February 21 five days after the snow did not return The Hook's calls but did have their sidewalks cleared within an hour or two of getting our message.

The Paramount Theater's Sandy DeKay called back on February 21 to report that the Market Street side of the theater would be cleared that afternoon. "Thank you for bringing it to our attention," says McKay. "We've been so swamped it slipped my mind, but it won't happen again."

Although UVA normally has its sidewalks cleared, Stacey Hall on West Main was the exception and was still covered with snow on February 21. What gives?

Bob Beard in UVA Health Systems media relations blames the city. "Facilities maintenance says they cleared it off, but the city plowed snow on it again," he says, adding that the university planned to clear the sidewalk once again.

And in an interesting twist, one downtown business owner who's complained in the past about the city's less-than-rigorous enforcement and who didn't bother clearing the sidewalk this time was surprised to have a police officer visit the business at 8:45am February 21 to remind of the ordinance. "I was shocked," says this owner, who declined to be identified.

Some critics think one of the reasons the ordinance is ignored is that the city hasn't done a good job of notifying the public about the law.

"I mention it every time I'm on WINA radio doing road condition updates when it snows," says the city's Jones. And the January issue of City Notes that's mailed to every gas and water customer advises of the ordinance. It's also on the city's website, says Jones.

However, the information on the website does not include the fact that there's a time limit for clearing the sidewalks, nor does it mention that violation of the ordinance is a class 1 misdemeanor.

After the city's first snow in December, City Manager Gary O'Connell called sidewalk snow removal "one of the most unpopular things we can enforce... and not something I relish having the police out enforcing."

Pedestrian-about-town Kevin Cox believes the city should give a gentle warning on high-traffic areas like West Main and Water Street. "At least do something," he pleads.

Or maybe the city has another strategy for dealing with sidewalk scofflaws. "I guess they're gambling on global warming," says Cox.

[Disclosure: The sidewalk in front of The Hook's office on Second Street NW was not cleared by the building's landlord until February 19.]




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