Fines for snowy sidewalks abound this harsh winter

Many local jurisdictions require property owners to shovel, but some say the task is daunting

  • Two men work together to shovel snow on Redwood Street early one morning during a snowstorm downtown.
Two men work together to shovel snow on Redwood Street early… (Barbara Haddock Taylor…)
February 25, 2014|By Kevin Rector, The Baltimore Sun

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.

With little snow last year, they issued one.

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."

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