Arlington, VA

In 2004, the city of Hagerstown charged an 86-year-old woman $223 for not clearing her sidewalk after a snowstorm. That same year, the city of Frederick, Md. sent snow removal bills to the state-run Maryland School for the Deaf and to an elderly couple confined to walkers.

The Hagerstown incident caused a “public outcry” that forced the city to ease up on enforcement, the Associated Press reported at the time. A photo of the elderly couple in Frederick, which ran in a local newspaper, is a classic study in bad PR.

Arlington is now considering a snow removal ordinance similar to the statutes in place in Hagerstown and Frederick. The proposed ordinance has garnered headlines like “Arlington Proposes Criminal Charges for Unneighborly Snow Shovelers” and “Arlington Says Clear Your Sidewalks or Pay Up.” Clearly, history risks repeating itself.

County officials, however, say they’ve been trying to learn from our neighbors.

“Staff reviewed numerous jurisdictions that have ordinances or conditions that govern sidewalk snow removal,” says Arlington County transportation planning chief Thomas Bruccoleri.

Among the jurisdictions studied:

  • The City of Alexandria requires property owners to clear sidewalks within 24 hours. Alexandria’s ordinance assesses a $50 civil penalty, but only after written notice has been issued.
  • Loudoun County requires property owners to clear sidewalks within 6 hours. People with physical or mental disabilities, and people over the age of 65, are exempted. The county provides written notice and has not had to issue fines due to high compliance. Like Arlington’s proposed ordinance, Loudoun can assess a fine of up to $250, which is a class 4 misdemeanor.
  • Fairfax County does not have a sidewalk snow removal ordinance.

Arlington is set to hold a public hearing on a permanent snow removal ordinance on Saturday, June 12.

The proposed ordinance would require residential and commercial property owners to clear snow from sidewalks 24-36 hours after snow stops falling. It would make it a misdemeanor to shovel snow onto public property, including streets and bus stops.

So far, it does not appear that Arlington will issue a written warning before issuing a fine, although Bruccoleri says property owners in violation of the ordinance may receive a phone call. He says exceptions may be made if snow is plowed onto previously-cleared sidewalks.

As for enforcement, Bruccoleri says they’ll largely be relying on residents tattling on each other.

“Although the ordinance would apply to all properties adjacent to public sidewalks, it would not be the County’s intent to do widespread enforcement,” he said. “Complaints from neighbors, pedestrians, and bicyclists and noticeable commercial violations of the snow ordinance are expected to be the primary way violations would be found.”

That may be a more effective means of enforcement than Bruccoleri realizes. Every day, police receive dozens of calls from residents about parking violations.

As part of an abatement provision, contractors would be responsible for clearing sidewalks in violation of the snow ordinance. The cost of the abatement would then be billed to the property owner by the contractor.

John Lestitian, the chief code compliance officer for the City of Hagerstown and a former Arlington resident, says that while enforcement is important, encouraging residents to help each other may be more vital.

“It’s one thing to have an ordinance [and] it’s another thing to have the enforcement,” said Lestitian. “[But] when all else fails, nothing will replace neighbors helping neighbors… in the event of a snow storm.”

There is at least one area where Hagerstown’s ordinance and Arlington’s proposed ordinance differ significantly.

Hagerstown requires that all sidewalks in front of city properties be clear before contractors begin the abatement of private property. Bruccoleri says such a provision would be unrealistic for Arlington.

“Clearly the County could not clear its own sidewalks of the extraordinary snowfall of this past winter within the 36-hour standard,” he wrote. “Even with a typical winter snowfall, County crews would be hard pressed to meet this standard given limited resources and competing priorities to meet demands on sidewalks along State roads, bus stops and fire hydrants, and schools.”

Bruccoleri says volunteers may be recruited to help the county clear its sidewalks.

In addition to the board hearing on the morning of June 12, Arlington County staff will hold an informal public forum on the snow removal ordinance on Thursday, May 20 at 7:00 p.m. The forum will take place at 3033 Wilson Blvd, rooms 7E-7F. Staffers will explain the proposed ordinance and answer questions.

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