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Digging Out of a Snowy Dilemma

March 16, 2014

It is no secret that Michigan, like much of the American Midwest, experienced  one of the coldest and snowiest winters in living memory (itself a very short time in the span of centuries and millennia) in 2013-4.  One of the issues, long dormant in the bygone era of relatively mild winters, is snow removal.  Headlines about city and county budgets under stress due to overtime and road salt/sand costs incurred in excess of what is planned to deal with a normal northern winter.  Where this writer lives, in Charlotte, a small town in mid-Michigan, another issue the record-setting snowfall raises is:  Who, if anyone, ought to keep the sidewalks clear?

Many cities have ordinances on the books requiring homeowners to clear the sidewalks in front of their homes within 24 to 48 hours of snow falling, if the accumulation is as great or greater than a certain minimum amount. Jackson, Michigan, for example, requires snowfall of 4 inches or more to be cleared within 48 hours of when the snowfall stops.

Pedestrian use of sidewalks was a major factor in Council’s 4-3 vote in favor of the proposed ordinance, which takes effect at the start of the next ‘snow season’ on October 1st and it remains in effect yearly through April 30th.

Homeowner/business responsibility for city property maintenance was the source of much push-back on this issue.  Several speakers at Council meetings, as well as a majority of those who wrote to us, objected to having to clear the City’s sidewalks; the counter-argument of those of us in support was that homeowners have to mow the boulevards in front of their homes, even though that, too, is municipally-owned.

Old age and disability also figured in the debate, as speaker after speaker pointed out that many homeowners were elderly and thus unable to shovel their walks.  (Figures given for the size of Charlotte’s senior homeowner community were often greatly exaggerated, with at least two citizens stating that the formed a majority of the population; one basic lesson of making public policy is to be sure of one’s facts, and a quick visit to revealed that only 14% of our residents are seniors, versus 20% who are school-aged children – primary users of sidewalks during the winter months.  Pointing this out helped to blunt that objection.)

Humanity and common sense ought to inform policy-making, and they did here, as our Mayor and other members of Council suggested that we learn from the experience of neighboring cities and crate a volunteer group to connect residents willing to help with those unable to help themselves.  For ‘snowbird’ residents who prefer warmer climes in winter, options exist to contract for snow removal when no neighbor, friend or Good Samaritan exists to care for their property.  (In their own self-interest, having the sidewalk cleared would help to keep their homes from appearing uninhabited to would-be burglars.

Finally, politics is the art of the possible.  One need not be a Lyndon Johnson to get legislation passed; it takes a willingness to see the other side’s point of view and to take half a loaf when a full one cannot be obtained.  Such was the case here, as the original proposal, made by this writer, called for a 24-hour period after the cessation of snowfall during which sidewalks must be cleared before the City could, upon citizen complaint, take action to either write a citation or to remove the snow and bill the property-owner.  (We chose enforcement via citizen complaint because the City lacks the resources to do primary enforcement – another objection raised to enacting this ordinance.)  We settled for a 48-hour period, which was necessary to cobble together a majority, even though it cost one vote that supporters might otherwise have had, from a colleague who thought that too long.  Two votes gained, one lost, and an ordinance enacted that was not anyone’s first choice, but was acceptable to a majority.  (In recognizing that things may not go as the majority envisions, this ordinance is only on the books for three years, thanks to a ‘sunset’ provision, and will have to be re-enacted before expiration to remain  in force thereafter.  This makes the snow-removal ordinance an experiment in public policy, renewable if it earns it, but otherwise set to melt away if it fails to work as intended.)

With the days growing longer and the temperatures beginning their slow ascent toward the warmer regions of the thermometer, we will have all summer to plan for coordinating volunteers before the next installment of ‘Pure Michigan’ winter.

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