Snow Jobs 

After the flakes fall, neighborhood sidewalks become a battleground

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Carol Gent steers the white Fusion hybrid to the curb, turns off the engine and picks up an iPad. "There it is," she says, pointing to a corner house near Dilworth Elementary School. Although there is a snow shovel next to the front door, the sidewalks are caked in snow and ice. She walks quickly across the street, pauses to take three photos, and then makes her way gingerly to the porch. No one answers the doorbell, so she hangs a lime-green notice on the door handle. Returning to the street, she sets off at a trot to a nearby house where the sidewalks are obviously unshoveled. There, she repeats the process. By the time she returns to the car a few minutes later, she has documented eight violations, knocked on eight doors and left eight warnings. "Most of the time, people aren't home," she says as she starts the car.

Gent is one of the city's 13 civil-enforcement officers who, in the wake of snowstorms, pay a call on property owners who have not cleared their sidewalks as city ordinances require. The addresses are provided by "concerned citizens" who report snow-packed sidewalks that are difficult—even dangerous—to navigate. In the wake of 2013's massive Dec. 7 snowstorm, for example, more than 60 people called the city to report violations.

Property owners and businesses are required to clear their sidewalks within 24 hours of the end of a storm. And a shovel-width track doesn't suffice: The entire walk has to be cleared down to bare concrete. Failure to do so results in a warning ticket on Gent's first visit, and $50 fines on subsequent ones. The longer the walks are neglected after a storm, the stiffer the fine. A few years ago, the city council increased the fines to up the ante for habitual offenders.

Gent says that some landlords, businesses and homeowners are scofflaws, ticketed year after year. Unlike parking tickets, however, the fines are not considered a revenue source for the city. The intent is to enforce city ordinances, thereby keeping walkways safe and passable—particularly to accommodate the disabled and elderly. "Our hope is that one visit does it, that another is never needed," says Randy Isbell, civil-enforcement manager. Gent estimates that in about 80 percent of the cases, a follow-up ticket is never issued.

The tough winter two years ago—31 inches of snow and ice on the valley floor—generated a blizzard of complaints. The Postal Service alone filed "pages and pages," Gent recalls. The city council also received complaints, and two councilmen were actually ticketed. So were neighbors of Councilman Charlie Luke and then-Councilwoman Jill Remington Love. Some of them groused that they had made an effort to clear the walks and were cited nonetheless. The ensuing brouhaha caused the council to examine the complaint-based system of enforcement and to conclude that while not perfect, it was better left unchanged. The only modification was the requirement that the first visit by an enforcement officer was to be a warning.

If I were a councilman, I think I would have pressed for change. Complaint-based enforcement leaves a lot to be desired if for no other reason than most people are uncomfortable tattling on their neighbors. Still, street-by-street patrolling by enforcement officers seems unworkable in a city of our size. What if the garbage-truck drivers made lists of addresses with snow-covered walks? Or the city contracted with the Postal Service for reporting violators? (The USPS could use the money.) Or Google provided real-time overhead photos?

I do think Isbell is on the right track. All things being equal, most people will do what is right. Once warned, most property owners will be mindful of their responsibility to the dog-walkers, stroller-pushers, wheelchair-users, meter-readers, mail-deliverers, bus- and rail-commuters, joggers, and codgers like me, for whom a fall on the ice could easily lead to a hospital emergency room. I don't rule out that in a flush of civic-mindedness, homeowners might even clear the walks of a vacant house or for a neighbor who needs the help. That's an idea the city government is actively promoting.

On the other hand, some people are blind to the responsibilities of community membership. The occupant of one home ticketed by Gent had cleared his driveway from garage to street but had left the sidewalks blanketed with snow. A charitable assessment is that he was late for work and after clearing a path for the car, had no time to shovel the sidewalks. A less-charitable view is that he is too self-absorbed to consider how his neglect affects walkers like the mail carrier.

I stopped a mail carrier on a cold, gray afternoon to ask his opinion. He shrugged. For him, stairs were more an issue than sidewalks, and he had his own remedy for the problem. If stairways become dangerously icy, the postman said, he stops delivering the mail. And therein lies a simple truth: Without a consequence for noncompliance, a law is easily ignored. That's why we have motorcycle cops, building inspectors and IRS agents.

I live in a Sugar House neighborhood frequented by walkers. Within hours of a snowstorm, the foot traffic compresses the snow into an uneven, hard, white surface. A little melting and lots more feet, and the sidewalks are polished into translucent ice. Add a dusting of snow, and you've got a Slip'N Slide capable of injuring even the most cautious walker. I take a Hobbesian view of the problem: I clear my sidewalks promptly as an act of civic-mindedness. I count on others to do the same. For those who don't, I think a nudge from Gent serves the greater good.

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