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D.C. Again Debates Slippery Issue: How To Get More Residents To Shovel Their Walks

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Under existing law, D.C. requires residents and businesses to shovel their walks — but doesn't have an easy means to make them comply.
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Under existing law, D.C. requires residents and businesses to shovel their walks — but doesn't have an easy means to make them comply.

Like in any other legislature, the D.C. Council takes up its share of controversial bills. Here, they include stadium financing proposals, gambling, changes to the tax code. And D.C.'s 90-year-old snow-shoveling law.

Over the last five years, various attempts have been made to change the law that requires residents and businesses to shovel their walks after a snowstorm. None have succeeded, despite the increasingly snowy winters that the city has dealt with in recent years. A new attempt this year looks more likely to succeed, but it still faces opposition.

The current law, which dates back to 1922, requires snow and ice to be cleared within eight daylight hours of the storm's end. If that doesn't happen, the city can clear the snow for the resident or business, then file a lawsuit to recover the costs of doing so.

But according to city officials, those lawsuits are rarely — if ever — filed. "This cumbersome and bureaucratic approach has led to zero enforcement," says Council member Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3), who since 2009 has been trying to change the law to make it easier for the city to levy fines on non-shovelers.

New bill would make issuing fines easier

Under her bill, which she introduced again this year, homeowners who fail to shovel away snow or ice within the eight-hour window would face a $25 fine for a first offense, $50 for a second and $100 for a third.

Fines would be steeper for businesses: $125 for a first offense, $250 for a second and $500 for a third. The Department of Public Works, Department of Transportation and Metropolitan Police Department would be empowered to issue tickets to violators.

For Cheh, the issue is simple: some 40 percent of D.C. residents do not own cars, she says, and walking to and from home and work after a snowstorm can be a harrowing — and dangerous — experience. She also says that snowier cities than D.C. — including Philadelphia, New York and Boston — have similar laws allowing for fines to be imposed on shoveling scofflaws.

"This is important for the larger public good. You're a property owner, when you get your bundled of rights, you get a bundle of responsibilities. This is one of them," Cheh says.

Concerns over seniors and disabled residents

But as in previous years, today the measure faced a flurry of questions from some of her colleagues on how the law would be implemented and how seniors and disabled residents could comply with it. During a brief debate, Council member Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4) said she worries that the city would be overly aggressive in ticketing residents, whether or not they are seniors or disabled.

To settle those concerns, Cheh's bill would take effect during the 2015-16 winter, giving residents a year to prepare. It would also set aside $130,000 for the city to send mailers to all residents informing them of the new law. And it would authorize Mayor Vincent Gray — or his successor — to draw up exemptions for seniors and disabled residents.

"Since that seemed to be the biggest sticking point, I thought that we would allow some latitude there, even though these other cities don't do it this way," Cheh says.

But for Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), who has long opposed changes to the law, the issue is how to identify who owns a particular home, especially when many homes in the city are owned by LLCs and occupied by renters.

"I don't think this law is going to work. We don't know who the property owners are. Unless there is a very clear indication that tenants are not responsible and will not be subject to fines, there's going to be a lot of confusion and anger," Graham says.

The Ward 1 Council member also worries how residents will respond when they receive their first ticket for not shoveling their walks. "The angriest response I have ever received to a fine in the District of Columbia has been when someone has been given a fine for jaywalking. This will take this to new heights," he says.

Will it pass?

Bowser and Graham sought amendments to Cheh's bill Tuesday, forcing her to delay any further consideration of it until a legislative session later this month. But even when it is debated again, there's no certainty that it will pass.

"Why are we doing this? It's a suburban point of view to all of this, something from Ward 3. A ward that maybe doesn't have an appreciation for the number of impoverished residents," says Graham.

But Cheh says that the bill won't impose any new burdens, just improve and enforce the law on the books. She also says that it comes down to homeowners and businesses taking responsibility for their properties.

"It's wrong and selfish of property owners to leave their property in a state where others can't pass by, can't walk to the grocery store, can't go get the pass," Cheh says. "Elderly people can't go out at all, because they're afraid of slipping and falling, and they do."

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