Though the District Department of Transportation’s anti-snow “force field” still seems to be in effect, warding off yet another anticipated snowfall last night, odds are that eventually, someday, it will actually snow again in D.C.
And someone will have to move it off the sidewalks.
When I first suggested in a Christmas Eve column that requiring private citizens to perform labor on public property -- that is, making property owners shovel adjacent sidewalks -- might not actually be constitutional, I assumed I was making another one of those crazy libertarian arguments that usually lead to sighs and eye-rolling.
But when D.C. Councilmember Mary Cheh introduced the Winter Sidewalk Safety Amendment Act of 2011 a couple of weeks later -- a bill that would allow the imposition of fines of $25 on residents and $250 on businesses that do not clear their sidewalks within eight hours of the end of a snowfall -- there was a vocal backlash online. One commenter on this site said, “It is a public sidewalk which should be maintained by the government. If it was my sidewalk I'd be able to park on it, paint it, put lawn chairs and a barbecue on it, etc.”
The Washington Examiner, after running its own story on the Cheh bill, noticed that “more than a few readers from farther south said in response to our story on the subject that the District should be responsible to shovel snow from sidewalks, not homeowners.” One North Carolina reader wrote, “Aren't sidewalks city property? If they crack, the city fixes them.”
The Examiner said it “received no e-mails from our northern neighbors, probably because it's common in snowy cities for property owners to be required to clear their own sidewalks.” Or maybe it was a red state/blue state thing.
But there’s also a lot of opposition to, or at least questions about, Cheh’s bill on the listserv in the Tenleytown neighborhood -- hardly a right-wing enclave. There, the issue is less about rights and property than about whether city “snow police,” as one resident called them, could be trusted to be fair.
“DPW city inspectors and ticket writers have shown numerous instances of poor judgment in issuing tickets,” says one resident, citing instances of citations for “items put out awaiting bulk trash pickup, items on private property, [and] shrubbery slightly over a fence.”
This resident worries that “this gotcha mentality” could lead to snow fines for those who are out of town, pregnant, injured, or sick. And what will “snow removal” mean? Is it “a one-lane path down the sidewalk or does it mean every bit of snow removed from the sidewalk? Remember Snowmageddon? Do you think you can remove every bit of it in a storm like that?”
One supporter of the measure dismissed these concerns. “The only valid concern is over the elderly and handicapped,” he wrote. “The able bodied are responsible for clearing their own sidewalk. Being out of town does not absolve this responsibility.”
But others saw this leading to even more bureaucratic confusion. “I agree that able bodied people should shovel their walks, if the opportunity is there,” one replied. But “who decides who is or isn't able bodied? Does someone have to provide the neighborhood and the city with the details of his or her medical history?”
There was, of course, no consensus -- it’s a listserv, after all. But the doubts were clear.
“Enforcement is too complicated and burdensome on the residents,” wrote one. Another listed a range of questionable tickets for other offenses, and said, “In every single instance there was either abuse by a city worker or incompetence or both,” and suggested snow ticketing authority would just make things worse.
Maybe we should just hope it doesn’t snow.