Winter attacks! New sidewalk-clearing law focuses on fees, not jail

news-sidewalk-omniUnshoveled sidewalks like this one on Water Street were common last winter. Officials hope the new ordinance will prevent a repeat.

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."

When police finally did begin to issue citations in February, the charges didn't stick after judges ruled the ordinance was in violation of state law.

"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.


"Me" and "Oh" and anyone else who doesn't know:

Sam has both a demanding day job and a demanding hobby. On his own time, with no compensation and with very little recognition, he has for years done the heavy lifting of history. That is, he digs deeply and methodically through the primary sources -- legal records in particular -- that many would-be historians ignore but which often contain informational gems as well as truths all need to know. In that regard, he has contributed immensely to our understanding of what really happened in our past.

As for the matter of the Tonsler brush pile: I have no doubt that Sam has personally cleaned up many a mess in a local public cemetery as have I and others who care. But cleaning up messes ad hoc doesn't eliminate the need to bring to public and official attention the appalling lack of maintenance of sites that should manifest maximum respect. The City has booted its responsibilities vis-a-vis cemeteries for years and should be called to account.

This should and only be a courtesy of the citizens of charlottesville. I think no one should be fined for what mother nature brings. Its laws like this that cause so much hostility and negativity toward goverment.

I tried to use my leaf blower on the snow on my sidewalk, but it doesn't seem to be working.

What action is the city going to take upon themselves? They did not clear sidewalks well last time, and some of the "city maintained" sidewalks didn't even get cleared. How can they impose anything on anyone else when they can't do their job? I did not see any mention of how they are going to remedy their own problem.

Sarah, the two department heads mentioned in this article are the problem. Any chance of a remedy to that went out the window when go-with-the-flow-Mo was hired as City Manager.

If a city snow plow driver dumps snow on a sidewalk that a citizen cleared, either that driver simply doesn't care to do his job right, or he was instructed not to bother to do it right. The solution to that problem is simple, get rid of whoever made that decision and replace him or her with someone who does care to do things right.

The problem is that NO ONE who works for the city is ever held accountable and that is true all the way to the top. Tolbert's belief that citizens are responsible for the failure of another city department head to manage her staff effectively is a perfect illustration of that.

Keep in mind also that the ordinance and the VA Code that it reference only allow for the city to clear snow from a sidewalk at least 24 hours after proper notice of a violation has been given and then to charge for that removal. There is no other penalty. If the city started sending crews around to do that before taking care of its own responsibilities, then I think they would have a revolution on their hands. That's especially true if they tried charging to clear once cleaned sidewalks that they had just blocked again themselves.

Sam, you need to be raising heck with City Hall. Right this moment they are tearing up perfectly good sidewalks and replacing them on my street. It makes no sense whatsoever.

The City has never put the money up to put a sidewalk on our street and there are no plans for it either. So the City better be "diligent about clearing initially [the street] repeat shoveling may be necessary [of the street since that is where people walk]. Go to City and fine yourself if you don't do a good job.

Yeah, I have a comment...the UVa Observatory is the MCCOFMICK Observatory, not the McIntire. Please use the correct names and spellings of the Charlottesville buildings, parks, etc. for accurate reporting.

I just feed my Commodore 64 all the pertinent info and it forecast a winter that will be.. wait for it....wait for it...50% chance of above average temps and the other model was 50% chance below. Glad to help you all with some high tech accurate forecasting.

My TRS-80 confirms your prediction.

"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."

That is a mighty bold statement coming from the Neighborhood Planning Department. Sounds like they may come and open up a can of whoop arse if you don't clear their sidewalks.

Sarah, sadly enough, the judge is going to say, "the city is not on trial here, were YOUR sidewalks clear or not?"

Why doesn't the city clean it? I don't get it. If a piece of property is not your property to begin with, why are you required to clean it. I can understand its a neighborly thing to do but I don't understand why it would be illegal not to do it.

I have wondered that myself AJ. I realize it's for the safety of mailmen and pedestrians, but I don't own the sidewalk, the city does.

What would be nice if neighbors would all chip in and get it done in a flash. In my neighborhood those days are long gone of neighbors being neighbors.

I haven't had too much contact with the City but:
-A Street light down the street burned all day we called the City and they said for us to contact Dominion power, it wasn't their job, only if the street light was burned out not if it burned all day.
-James Bailey who lived at Monticello during the civil war with Joel Wheeler is buried in Maplewood with a tombstone and "B" concrete corner markers. The City says the "Happy" family owns the section (based on a 1920s map that says so) and refused to change the records. Since 1963 they lost/destroyed the old Maplewood Cemetery book but I found a copy at Alderman. Theodore "Hoppe" did own the section in 1890s (I figured the Baileys must have bought it from them and the City map shows "Happy" instead of "Hoppe". The City refused to change their records from "Happy" to "Hoppe" or Bailey and said if a Circuit court ruled the Baileys owned it (by a Civil case) they would change their records then.
- I pointed out to Channel 19 news some weeks ago that Ben Tonsler's grave had a brush pile piled on it while we have a park and commissioned an oil painting of him in the park building. So when Jefferson School gets restored we will spend $ having a monument to him while his actual tombstone is a brush dump two blocks away?

Sam - why would you go through all that trouble over a street light? Seriously who cares? When it's on all day are you paying for it? No. When the bulb burns out is it your problem to fix? No. It sounds like you're one of those people who just sits around looking for petty problems to bother people about, just so you can then have something to complain about. Time to get a hobby! I can understand if somebody has a true problem that the city didn't address, you hear about that sort of thing a lot, but a single streetlight? whoop de doo.

Oh and Sam, in the time it took you to complain to Channel 19 about a so called "brush pile" on Ben Tonsler's grave you could have moved that brush pile out of the way yourself. But I guess that's not as much fun as calling Channel 19 and then moaning and groaning and complaining later on the internet. If you'd moved it out of the way yourself the problem would have been resolved right there and it would have been the end of that, instead you left it the way it was and could now milk the situation for three times what it's worth.

Oh and Me, I didn't complain to Channel 19 Jessica Jaglois called me up out of the blue to meet them down there. They were already working on the story, more about whiskey bottles there etc. And yes the street light is of minor value, and I mentioned I hadn't had too much contact meaning major problems with the City.

I think whenever there is too much snow for kids to go to school, they should be required to shovel their neighborhood sidewalks. They don't have anything else to do... how about a little exercise and some lessons in community service?

Just another reason not to live in the city of C-Ville

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.

What about the elderly, individuals with health problems, and sick that cannot shovel themselves or that cannot afford to pay someone to shovel multiple times? If someone dies of a heart attack due to shoveling - is there potential for a law suit?

Enforcing this will be like enforcing the "red light challenge"...

by the way- how is the "red light challenge" working these days?


The City has arranged (same as last year) for a volunteer snow shoveling program to help the elderly and invalid. It's there on the city's website under "I Want To..." then "Register for Snow Removal" or "Volunteer for Snow Removal."

And that's fine that you don't want to live in Cville. Less traffic on the roads, and we don't have to deal with your charming personality. :)

And P.S. on Sam's report of a City official's refusal to correct a flawed cemetery record:

Though the example may seem minor to many, how flawed City records are is not a minor matter, nor is its unwavering resistance to correcting errors when they are pointed out. City Assessor online records are particulary rife with misinformation -- a problem in that they are regularly used by everyone from real estate agents writing advertisements to planning commissioners making decisions.

Charlotteville is about to mark the 250th snniversary of its founding. So, of course, the City has spent taxpayer money to hire a consultant as, essentially, a party planner. I would submit that the best birthday present Charlottesville and its citizenry could have is a public record set straight by those already on the payroll.

@Carol: Thanks for pointing out the error. It's been corrected to read McCormick Observatory. --Courteney Stuart

P.S. The ordinance changed from 12 hours to 24 hours after snowfall. The violation gives another 24 hours if it is not corrected. Maybe you should reference it, it's public record.

How about you shovel your sidewalk when it snows? If you have a neighbor who is elderly and you're concerned for their health, then shovel their sidewalk for them. If you're not in town and you find out that it snowed, have someone shovel your sidewalk for you. And for those of you who want the City to shovel the sidewalks for you... I hope you enjoy the tax increase if that ever happens. Do you realize how much overtime, and wasted resources/materials it would take to clear roads and sidewalks?