Frozen law: Sidewalk scofflaws skate free

When four inches of snow blanketed Charlottesville on December 5, Cheri Lewis spent an hour and a half shoveling snow from in front of her business on Seventh Street NE. By the time she got started that afternoon, she had to chip ice to clear the sidewalk, but she struggled on because, she says, "I knew what the ordinance was."

Others were not so scrupulous about clearing the city's sidewalks within six hours and some didn't bother at all. Even a week after the snow, treacherous sidewalks had pedestrians wondering why the city wasn't doing anything to enforce its ordinance.

"For the first storm, we were trying to give people the benefit of the doubt," says city spokesman Maurice Jones. "If that doesn't work, we move on to the enforcement side."

Typically, an offending property owner would get a warning first, and if that doesn't work, a citation is issued. The violation is a Class 1 misdemeanor with a fine up to $2,500 and/or up to 12 months in jail.

Kevin Cox walks to work everyday, and he cites a number of locations on East Market Street that were still covered with ice a week later. He's particularly incensed by businesses that clear their parking lots by plowing the snow onto the sidewalks, creating huge roadblocks. "If you're blind or disabled, you're in trouble," he says.

And while little old ladies are out there shoveling the snow, Cox believes certain business owners know the ordinance is not enforced and don't bother.

Cox wrote to City Councilor Rob Schilling to ask why the city responded only to complaints rather than actively enforcing its ordinance.

For one thing, it's one of the most unpopular things the city can enforce, says city manager Gary O'Connell in an email– "not something I relish having the police out enforcing," writes O'Connell.

And yet, snowy sidewalks are unpopular with walkers like Clive Bradbeer, who hoofs it a mile and a half to work every day up JPA. "It's exceedingly hazardous," he says. "I keep wondering why the city doesn't do something."

He's already planning strategy for a worst-case scenario. "If I slip and break a leg, I'm going to sue whoever owns that property," he says.

And while there are no records on the number of injuries attributed to slippery walks, Martha Jefferson reports an increase of six fractures the day after the snowstorm.

In an email discussion on snow removal, Councilor Blake Caravati says the city should be "absolutely bullheaded" about enforcement in high pedestrian traffic areas like West Main and downtown. He also noticed slackers: "The folks at Union Station need to be totally shamed for their lack of effort," he writes.

Clarence McClymond, 77, is peeved that parts of Locust Avenue, where he likes to walk for exercise, never got shoveled. "We're seniors. We don't want to walk in the road."

Cheri Lewis, who uncovered part of Seventh Street, calls the city's snow removal ordinance "quaint," because it relies on citizen goodwill to get the job done.

"The city could clear it itself," says Lewis. "It made an economic decision to put it on citizens, so the city should enforce it for the health and safety and liability reasons."

For Cox, the ordinance represents "the hypocrisy of City Hall" in promoting– but not ensuring– a pedestrian friendly environment. "If they really cared," Cox says, "they'd make sure those sidewalks were cleared."