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City easing snow stance

February 05, 2004|by GREGORY T. SIMMONS

gregs@herald-mail.com

City of Hagerstown officials said Wednesday they have changed the way they are enforcing the city's snow removal policy to be more "reasonable" to property owners, some of whom have been charged more than $200 for a city contractor to remove snow and ice from public sidewalks on their property.

The Hagerstown City Council also will review the city's snow removal ordinance later this year.

"What we are doing is, we are being reasonable," said John Lestitian, the city's chief code enforcement officer. He said the changes were a result of an "ongoing staff review" of the policy.

Under an ordinance revised last year, the city requires property owners to remove snow and ice from public sidewalks within four to 10 hours after precipitation ends, depending on where the property lies within city limits.

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City Administrator Bruce Zimmerman said during a council work session Wednesday afternoon that the city will not begin clearing sidewalks on private property until 48 hours after precipitation has ended.

City officials said their intent is to have all city-owned sidewalks cleaned before other property owners are penalized for not being in compliance with the snow-removal ordinance.

Officials said the Public Works Department and the Parks and Recreation Department - the two divisions in charge of clearing city-owned property - will be charged for snow and ice abatement if inspectors find the city's walkways are not cleared.

Inspectors will place on the doorknobs of property owners who have not cleared their sidewalks written notices that they are out of compliance.

So far this winter, inspectors have placed notices on about 35 properties, City Engineer Rodney Tissue said, but the notices did not specifically say the property owners would be charged if they did not clear the sidewalks on their properties.

The new notices will include more detailed fee information as well as a specific "on or after" date when the contractor will clean the walkways, Tissue said. Property owners who clear their sidewalks before the contractor arrives will not be charged.

According to records provided by the city's Code Compliance Office, a city contractor removed snow and ice from sidewalks on 51 properties in Hagerstown in December and January. The owners were charged between $173 and $285 each time the contractor cleared a sidewalk.

Lestitian said those properties for which the owners were charged were either brought to the attention of city inspectors through complaints, or the inspectors came across them in their daily routines.

Two council members on Wednesday called for a review of the prices property owners are charged. The city's contractor, Buildall Construction Corp., has been charging a $100 administrative fee and a $45 salt application fee.

Councilman Lewis Metzner said the $100 administrative fee "seems nuts."

Officials have said that fee is associated with sending inspectors to properties to verify that there is a code compliance problem and that contracted work has been completed.

"It sounds like a penalty fee to me. It just sounds like we lost sight of what our job is," Metzner said.

Metzner said the $45 salt application fee seems high.

Lestitian said earlier Wednesday that the flat fee was charged for every property from which snow was cleared by the city, although the contractor is not required by city code to apply salt.

"Somewhere along the line, $45 for salt is gouging somebody somewhere," Metzner said.

Councilman Linn Hendershot called on residents and property owners "to become more responsible citizens" to help comply with the code, but he said the costs could be lowered.

Hendershot said the code enforcers "need a hammer, and the question is, do they use a 10-pound hammer or do they use a 3-pound" hammer. "We want results, but we don't want to kill people."

Councilman Kristin Aleshire called into question the accuracy of stories on the matter that ran in The Herald-Mail newspapers, and said the stories "hyped up this issue."

He said he was pleased with the way sidewalks have been cleared, and said he received two letters about the city's efforts. He provided the letters after the meeting. One supported the city's efforts and one was critical of the city's policy.

"There are definitely many different points of view on the subject that were not represented," Aleshire said.

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