By Mary Spicer
“The people who don’t think it’s important to keep their sidewalks clear of snow and ice should speak to the people who have fallen and hurt themselves — or who have seen people young and old and in-between trying to navigate,” Mayor Christopher Soff told the Tribune as weekend forecasts predicted another snowfall headed toward the Meadville area.
“From a purely business standpoint,” he added, “if I’m looking at two businesses and one has the sidewalk shoveled and one doesn’t, it doesn’t take me long to figure out that I’m going to go to the one with its sidewalk shoveled.”
There are, however, other sanctions.
-The law: According to Section 1721.31 of the Municipal Code of the City of Meadville, “Owners of and persons responsible for premises located in the city on which are located sidewalks adjacent to public streets shall keep the sidewalks free and clear of snow and ice and from debris that poses a hazard to pedestrians between the daytime hours of 8 a.m. and 5 p.m.” Only three days, by the way, shall be permitted to correct the violation.
-The penalty: For failing to keep the sidewalk clear of snow and ice, Section 1721.15 sets a fine of up to $1,000 for the first two violations on the same property and up to $5,000 for the third and subsequent violations. However, if that failure to clear the sidewalk is found to pose a threat to the public’s health, safety or property, the fine will climb to no less than $500 and no more than $1,000 for the first two violations and a minimum of $1,000 up to a maximum of $10,000 for subsequent violations.
Shovel or pay
Once upon a time, owners of property located within the City of Meadville were required to have their sidewalks clear of snow and ice based on a complicated calculation that appeared to take into consideration factors including the exact time the last flake of the snowfall landed within city limits, the first and last moments of daylight along the Greenwich meridian on the day in question and the geolocation of the northernmost reindeer on the ground in Lapland when that last snowflake hit the ground. Violators were subject to immediate fines beginning at $10 for failure to shovel accordingly.
All that changed in 2010, however, when Meadville City Council adopted a new property maintenance code. Today, sidewalks are supposed to be clear between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. Period. If they’re not, code enforcement officers are authorized to swing into action.
“There has always been an ordinance that you have to clear the sidewalks, but in 2010 they moved it over to the fire department and changed the fines,” Meadville Central Fire Department Chief Larndo (Tunie) Hedrick, who also serves as the city’s chief property maintenance code officer, explained during a recent interview. “Fines are very stiff now. I tell people when I enforce property maintenance codes that they’re basically there for a purpose. Somebody has been hurt or killed as the direct result of them not being there.”
As city budget cuts in recent years have turned the fire department and its full-time firefighters into something of a catch-all for municipal chores, “I don’t have a problem with that,” Hedrick explained. “Our job in the fire department is to protect life and property and we take that very seriously, so if we’re given another task to perform, we perform that just the same way we do when we go out to fight fire.”
Regarding snowy, icy sidewalks, for example, when members of city council complained a few years ago that not enough violations were being issued, Hedrick sent both of the city’s part-time property maintenance inspectors and six fire department officers out into the streets. In one day, they wrote 200 sidewalk violation notices.
Hedrick is hoping it won’t come to that in 2013, but response to this winter’s snowfalls is already giving his patience a workout.
“We are sensitive to the fact that we got dumped on last time,” he said. “The inspectors are sensitive to that fact and will allow a little more time, but when it’s getting into day four and five and six and it’s starting to mound up we can’t tolerate that. We have to have them cleared. We’ve got little kids going to school and they’re walking out in the street. We’ve got elderly people that we’re actually picking up and taking to the hospital because they’re slipping and falling. We really need those sidewalks cleared.”
In the wake of that snowfall, 100 violation notices and one citation were issued during a two-week period. Violators have three days to respond; if the violation continues to exist, the next step is filing a citation at the district magistrate’s office.
While Hedrick would prefer to have things settled before the courts become involved, “our code enforcement officers do have the training and the authorization to take you all the way through the legal system,” he said.
Last year, for example, a property owner who decided to fight a $750 fine appealed to the county court and lost. “He ended up with a $750 fine plus court costs plus whatever it cost him to pay an attorney to appeal it,” Hedrick said. “We really don’t want to file citations,” he repeated. “We just want people to be aware that they need to keep their walks clean.”
View from the front lines
Out on the streets every day, Property Maintenance Inspector Terry Hanes has lots of praise for all the folks making efforts to keep their sidewalks clear that are sometimes almost heroic. That said, he’s not happy about a lot of things he’s been seeing.
“People don’t seem to understand that it can’t be helped that the handicap ramps at intersections get covered with more snow whenever the city plows,” Hanes said. “They’ll shovel up to the intersection and then they’ll stop. It’s still their responsibility, if their sidewalk goes out to the street, to make sure to shovel it right out there.”
When the ramps aren’t shoveled, crossing at intersections isn’t easy for anyone, Hanes stressed. “People in electric carts can’t get through. People with canes — I can’t imagine. I saw a guy out there the other day who had one arm in a sling and he was walking with a cane. I thought, ‘Oh my. There’s an accident waiting to happen.’ ”
After posting 100 properties for violations already this season, “we’re going to pay special attention during the next snowfall,” Hanes said. “Any of those people who didn’t respond the first time, they’re not going to be cut any slack.”
Mary Spicer can be reached at 724-6370 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.