Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Should local governments require homeowners to clean publicly-owned sidewalks of excess snow?


Okay, here’s another “libertarianesque” question.  Should local governments require (by law) property owners to clean sidewalks on public property (which they do not own)?  The question comes up after extratropical superstorm Janos this past weekend, that turned into a miniature Sandy.

In the DC area, most jurisdictions (except Fairfax County) require that sidewalks be cleared within 24 hours after snow stops falling, or 36 hours if it is more than six inches. Generally, the elderly or disabled are exempt from the fines.  What’s a little more problematic is that usually sidewalks must be cleared a full 36 inches, to allow room for wheelchairs and baby strollers. It isn’t hard to make a narrow path (one can do that with just stomping);  moving snow 2 feet deep and 3 feet wide to a clean surface, for a need that is very unlikely to occur, is another matter.

Indeed, when I walked a mile to Ballston yesterday (still snowed in), with an achy hip, it was more difficult to walk on an incompletely cleaned walk.  But in many areas there simply was not room for a 3-foot space to exist.  In a few commercial areas, cleaning had not been done yet.

As for public safety, there’s a tradeoff.  For some people, even middle aged, attempting to shovel that much snow can be dangerous.

I also found it impossible to reach snow removal companies by the usual 800 numbers.   I have no problem paying a contractor to do it if one is available.  But 60 hours after the snow stopped, side streets in my area are not yet cleared to let them in.

Fortunately for me, a “good Samaritan neighbor” did my driveway and sidewalk (to 20 inches).  All I need is for the street to clear.  Everyone denies doing it;  I think it was the family with the dog that always watches me leave.  Many thanks.

Helping your neighbor is a good thing and is to be morally expected.  But should it be required legally? As a matter of principle,  it sounds a little bit like conscription (and there can even be some risk and sacrifice).   But, think about jury duty.  There is some use of force there, but we have no justice system without it.  One other thing – if you live in a condo or many townhome communities or even some newer gated communities, you may have a homeowner’s association that can fine you – and is in a sense, your most local level of government.
There's been a controversy over people saving spaces on public streets that they shoveled out.  In Washington DC, the police chief Cathy Lanier said, no, anyone can use it.  But there was an overwhelming public sentiment on the radio that people should not park in spaces that others have cleared, and that claiming it should be legal.

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