Winter attacks! New sidewalk-clearing law focuses on fees, not jail
No one teaches a lesson quite like Mother Nature, and last winter's epic snowstorms revealed flaws in the city's snow removal laws that Charlottesville officials hope have been addressed in a new ordinance approved in August.
"We absolutely think it's going to make a difference," says Jim Tolbert, head of the Neighborhood Planning Department on Wednesday, December 15, the eve of the area's first snowstorm.
The old snow removal ordinance required residents and business owners to clear the sidewalks around their properties within 24 hours of the last snowflakes falling. Failure to do so was considered a crime, a Class One misdemeanor carrying the possibility of a jail sentence up to 12 months and a fine up to $2,500.
As it turned out, the threat of jail didn't have the desired effect. After the city failed to clear its own properties, police enforcement was practically nonexistent. Sidewalks remained impassable for weeks following the December 18, 2009 storm dubbed "Snowpocalyse" that dropped around two feet and the 18-inch February 6, 2010 "Snowmageddon."
"Public Works did a terrible job and didn't seem to learn lessons from the first snowfall," says Kevin Cox, an avid pedestrian and outspoken critic of city's handling of snow issues last year. Cox says he's now hopeful that this is the year snow removal will finally be taken seriously in Charlottesville.
"I think they'll make some effort to enforce it," he says of officials. Public Works boss Judith Mueller did not return a reporter's call.
The new ordinance requires Charlottesville residents and business owners to clear the sidewalks around their property within 48 hours of the snowfall ending. Failure to do so will result in a $75 "administrative fee," and that won't be the only expense a violator will incur: while city officials once ignored the snowcovered sidewalks, now they will use public resources to clear them– and then pass on the bill to the violator.
Cox believes the new ordinance improves the old–- but he says there are questions that haven't been answered. Among them is the problem of snow plows–- operated privately or by the City's Public Works–- pushing snow onto sidewalks that a resident has already cleared.
"Who's responsible then?" he asks, noting that he and others have been asking this question since February but have not been given an answer.
Tolbert has the answer: the property owner is responsible, he says, regardless of how many times it happens. Even if they're diligent about clearing initially, repeat shoveling may be necessary. Failure to re-clear the walkway within 24 hours of receiving a citation will result in the same fee.
Tolbert acknowledges that if we get another massive storm like last year's, there will be challenges all around–- for residents, businesses and government–- and he suggests there may be some flexibility in requirements in unusual circumstances. In addition, he says the warning citations issued 24 hours before the fine is levied, will contain contact information to be used by anyone who is physically unable to perform their required sidewalk clearing duties due to age, illness, or disability.
The best test of the new ordinance, of course, is another significant snowfall, and it's too early to say whether this year will be snow heavy, brutally cold, or neither.
"The mid-Atlantic is notoriously difficult to predict," says state climatologist Jerry Stenger. While the Northeast has experienced massive snowfalls due the so-called "lake effect," when moisture from the Great Lakes is pulled up into the atmosphere, then dropped as snow once it reaches land, the mid-Atlantic is too far away to feel such effect. Stenger says the position of the Jet Stream–- with well defined peak and trough–- has been pulling Arctic air down into our area even as the states in the Southwest are recording record high temps.
"It was 80-some degrees in Arizona!" exclaims Stenger, noting that temps at UVA's McCormick Observatory–- 15 degrees recorded the morning of Wednesday, December 15–- are running more than five degrees below average for December.
Despite difficulty predicting weather patterns for this area of the country, Stenger says there are some models that suggest we could be in for a colder and wetter winter than average, including, he says, a "better than average chance" at a white Christmas.
Snow or not, Charlottesville residents are gearing up to get snowed in after learning tough lessons last year–- including those last-minute searches for shovels when stores all over town had sold out. According to Dinah Jarrell, office manager at Martin's Hardware, the store saw brisker shovel sales earlier this year and has stocked up.
"We have 1,000 shovels, 1,000 sleds and one and a half tractor trailer loads of ice melt," she laughs. And unlike those who are dreading the prospect of another year buried in snow, Jerrell says she and her colleagues have their fingers crossed.
"We're hoping for another winter like last one!"
Anyone share her sentiment?
Correction: Low temps were recorded at the McCormick Observatory.