A blog for better streets and public spaces in Portland, Maine.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Snowplows on Sidewalks

It's November, which means that it's time for Portland's City Council to debate how it's going to enforce the city's sidewalk-shoveling laws.

Last year's policy wasn't a great success. Here's how the sidewalk watchdog at portlandsidewalks.org describes it:

The city gives property owners 24 hours after the end of a snowstorm to clear their adjacent sidewalk of ice and snow. For corner lot owners this responsibility includes clearing the sidewalk along the side and providing access to the street. After that 24-hour period, sidewalks blocked with snow should be reported... The reported address is then forwarded to the City Inspections Department who then send out an inspector to verify and then notify the owner that they have another 24 hours to comply with the city ordinance. Inspections Department then will make a follow-up visit and if the walk is still not cleared they will contact Portland Public Works who will then come by and clear that sidewalk and charge the property owner for this expense. The code further states that there is a flat fine of $250 for business properties who willfully plow snow onto a city sidewalk.
And here's how that worked in practice (also courtesy of portlandsidewalks.org):


Left to right: State Street, Fore Street, and Preble Street.

As the photos show, some property owners were diligent, but that hardly mattered much if the neighbor was a deadbeat. Unsurprisingly, people were hesitant to narc on their neighbors. And the City's convoluted enforcement system meant that even those sidewalks that got reported didn't have much incentive to shovel as quickly as they should have.

This year, the Portland Bike/Ped Committee has asked the city to increase its budget for plowing sidewalks. We spend tax dollars to clear the middle of the streets for cars; why aren't we doing the same for pedestrians on the sidewalk? Getting a city plow to clear the sidewakls is certainly more efficient than having dozens of different shovelers clearing the sidewalks in a patchwork fashion. That said, if the city can't come through with the best solution, then having individual homeowners clear the sidewalk is still going to be important.

At a meeting last week, the city did decide to increase the public sidewalk plowing budget. Bike/Ped Committee member Gary Higginbottom attended the public safety hearing and offered this account to the rest of the group's e-mail list:

"Initial discussion by the Public Safety Committee and by Michael Bobinsky of the Dept. of Public Services focused on their conclusion that there simply are not enough City staff resources to track sidewalk snow removal violations throughout the whole city, so whether or not snow removal is required in the off-peninsula area, enforcement will be focused on the peninsula. Further discussion explored whether the Committee should recognize and "codify" the fact that off-peninsula sidewalk snow removal simply won't be enforced. By "codification" they meant acknowledging the reality of off-peninsula non-enforcement by exempting off-peninsula landowners (except commercial owners) from the sidewalk clearing requirement. Essentially the Committee decided that such an exemption is a bad idea, and they passed that opinion back to the full City Council for final action - hopefully before the snow flies.

"The Committee ended up by passing two items back to the City Council (here is where I'm a little fuzzy). On the matter of dropping the snow-removal requirement for off-peninsula areas... the Committee unanimously opposed that motion with its amendments and sent the motion back to Council with their negative assessment.

"The Committee then formulated and unanimously approved an alternative motion to continue the policy of requiring snow removal from sidewalks throughout the city - both on- and off-peninsula [plus amendments to extend the time for snow removal in extenuating circumstances and to clear snowbanks at street crossings]. This motion was sent back to the Council with the Public Safety Committee's positive assessment.

"Among my global-perspective comments about the drastic need to rearrange American public resource allocation priorities from military occupation and regime change to at-home, non-destructive measures such as city-wide snow removal (and infrastructure reconstruction in general - to say nothing of health care, no child left unfunded etc.), I suggested that more people should be made aware that the City will be plowing 30 more miles of City sidewalks - a very good thing -- although efficiency arguments would seem to favor having City equipment and crews be funded to clear virtually ALL sidewalks instead of relying on the citizen sidewalk militia - despite whatever physical fitness benefits might accrue to the citizenry.

"Other public speakers at the Nov. 5 meeting made the point that all sidewalks are a 12-month/year infrastructure resource with 12-month users. There should be 12-month availability - just like roads."

4 comments:

Jim said...
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Carrick hadyan said...

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Zack said...

Portlandsidewalks.org's domain has lapsed. Any idea what happened to them?

Reiche Mom said...

I tried to show the Portland Sidewalk watchdog blog to our Public Works director and see now that it is gone. Where to?