So Do You Have a Shoveling Team?

It's possible, but not until afternoon

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    NEWSLETTERS

    TK
    AFP/Getty Images
    A man walks at the national mall wearing ski in Washington, DC, on February 7, 2010. Hundreds of emergency crews battled on February 7, to clear snow-clogged roads and restore power to thousands of homes across the US east coast before a new storm hits, aided by some welcome winter sun.

    D.C. could get a white Christmas this year...  or more accurately a few flurries, though probably not until after all the presents are opened.

    Light snow is possible starting Saturday afternoon, with about a 30-percent chance of light snow on Sunday. Department of Public Works Director William Howland said 25 trucks will be out Christmas afternoon, with “a full deployment of about 160 trucks on their routes” by Sunday morning.

    As winter sets in, and with memories of last year’s Snowmageddon catastrophe still fresh, DPW and the District Department of Transportation are urging neighborhoods to organize snow shoveling teams to clear sidewalks after it snows. DPW’s Kevin Twine says the District “requires property owners, residential and commercial, to clear the sidewalks surrounding their property within 24 hours after a snowfall.”

    The actual law is a bit stricter. The D.C. Code requires anyone whose property fronts a public sidewalk to clear that sidewalk of ice or snow “within the first eight hours of daylight after the ceasing to fall of any snow or sleet.” But the law is only sporadically enforced, and a Council measure that would allow city workers to issue $25 tickets for violations languished this year.

    It’s a reasonable policy, but is it a constitutional one?

    It’s hard to see how a government can compel private citizens to perform labor on public property -- that sounds like involuntary servitude. Could a city compel residents of a neighborhood to keep a corner park clean, or mow the lawn at the local school? (I asked DPW’s Twine if anyone has ever made such an argument, but he declined to answer.)

    These are hypotheticals, and the policy as it stands makes sense -- it would be unrealistic to expect the District government to get every sidewalk cleared by DPW personnel in a timely fashion. But shouldn’t homeowners get some sort of tax rebate for performing manual labor on behalf of the city?

    In any case, we’re not likely to see that much snowfall this winter. Predictions are for a milder-than-average season -- perhaps all the snow got used up last year -- and homeowners’ labors will be minimal.

    “Many of our residents are elderly or disabled and need their neighbors’ help,” DDOT chief Gabe Klein said. “That’s why we are asking you to volunteer your services and make winter a little easier on everyone. Let’s hope the forecasters are right about the long-range predictions of normal snowfall this year of about 12 to 15 inches.” 

    Follow P.J. Orvetti on Twitter at @PJOinDC