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Snow policy fallout

January 31, 2004|by GREGORY T. SIMMONS

gregs@herald-mail.com

The mayor of Hagerstown and two city councilmen said Friday they think the city should consider changing the way it enforces its policy on removing snow from public sidewalks on private property, on a day officials received a flurry of calls about the ordinance.

"I'm not sure if it's the ordinance or the way it's applied," said Mayor William M. Breichner, but he thought the case of an 86-year-old woman who was charged $223 for not clearing her sidewalk in December could have been handled differently.

The workers "could have knocked on her door and said something," Breichner said. He said giving notice to property owners can take more time, but "that's a fair way to do it."

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City officials said they will consider dropping the cost the city charges property owners - which so far has ranged between $173 and $285 per property - as well as how and when the owners are notified about snow clearing.

A Hagerstown contractor has removed snow and ice from 51 properties since December, and the city billed each property owner a $100 administrative fee, as well as costs for salting the walkways and labor.

Property owners contacted this week said the fee for salt application was $45.

A city ordinance requires property owners to clear sidewalks between four and 10 hours after a snowfall, depending on where their property lies within city limits. After that time, the city can charge the owner to clear the sidewalk, and eventually fine property owners $200 if they do not comply. No one has been fined.

"We're going through a bit of frustration ... What we're trying to emphasize is obviously the safety," City Administrator Bruce Zimmerman said. He said snow and ice on the sidewalks is most dangerous for children and seniors.

"It's important to keep the sidewalks clean ... We're trying to be reasonable," Zimmerman said.

Zimmerman said he received two calls from people complaining about snow that had not been cleared, and Chief Code Enforcement Officer John Lestitian said his office received 15 similar complaints.

Councilman Kristin Aleshire said he thinks the code is being enforced consistently, which is how it should be done, but "maybe there's a better way of going about it."

He said it may not have been fair to charge the 86-year-old woman for not clearing her sidewalk, but "above and beyond anything else has to be public safety."

"I think the goal is to correct the infractions that occur by the habitual violators," Aleshire said.

Councilman Lewis Metzner said he thinks the ordinance is "well-intended, but it may require some fine-tuning." He said the focus should be on downtown streets that are highly traveled, not residential streets.

Metzner said the way the snow-removal program appears to be operating is similar to the way a car is towed, when high costs are charged to the car's owner.

"On the face of it, it seems unreasonable. ... This is not about penalizing our citizens," Metzner said.

Councilman Linn Hendershot said he took six phone calls Friday about snow problems, including complaints about residents who still had not cleared their sidewalks and complaints from people who thought the program was unfair.

He said he supports the ordinance - Hendershot uses a wheelchair and says clear sidewalks are important to a city's viability - but if someone has a problem, they should file a formal complaint.

"We're not trying to punish people. We're trying to get them to comply with the law," Hendershot said.

Hendershot said the current fees are "high by design. ... I'm hoping people will get the message that we're serious about enforcing this."

Hendershot and Councilwoman Penny May Nigh said if someone's sidewalk isn't clear, neighbors should pitch in to clear it.

"I don't care if it's below zero, these people are entitled to get out and use the sidewalk. ... This is the name of the game," Nigh said.

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