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Mon Dec 20 17:52:02 CST 2010
Keeping Sidewalks Clear During WinterKalamazoo Gazette / Mark BugnaskiMary Gashaw crosses South Westnedge Avenue at Crosstown Parkway on her way to Harding's
Marketplace in Kalamazoo. Getting around in her wheelchair is far more difficult for Gashaw — and sometimes impossible — when walkways such as this one
aren't cleared of snow and ice during the winter.
KALAMAZOO — Stricken with weak legs, bad hips and arthritis, Mary Gashaw relies on her wheelchair to get around Kalamazoo.
In good weather, the wheelchair gives her a sense of independence, allowing her to travel on her own to the grocery store or doctor’s office.
But in the winter, her motorized wheelchair acts just like a car. It slips and slides or gets stuck on ice and snow left on city sidewalks.
“A wheelchair will spin out just as easily as a car will,” said Gashaw, 64, who navigates on the street when sidewalks aren’t clear.
That’s why Gashaw is asking residents and business owners to make sure their sidewalks and curbs are cleared of snow.
It’s a common refrain heard every winter.
Across Southwest Michigan,
communities have ordinances requiring residents and businesses to clear their sidewalks of snow and ice.
Failure to comply can result in fines, tax liens on property — even jail time, according to various ordinances.
The penalties sound tough, but enforcement falls short — Kalamazoo City Attorney Clyde Robinson said he can’t recall a single case in which a city property
owner was fined or jailed.
Most cities have no regular sidewalk patrols and, with shrinking revenues, fewer staff to monitor compliance or clear walkways. Even when responding to
complaints, police may be reluctant to penalize homeowners who may be out of town. Property owners also may suffer from disabilities themselves that make
it hard for them to keep their sidewalks clear.
In Otsego, the city has done less sidewalk snow removal in past years because of staff cuts.
“We still put ads in the paper encouraging people to keep the walks clear,” City Manager Thad Beard said. “We have not cited people, but it’s not going
as well as we wish. We hate to be the bad guy, we’d hate to cite people, and we usually don’t.”
But that may change if voluntary compliance doesn’t step up, he said.
“Clear your sidewalks,” he said.
In Kalamazoo, property owners are responsible for removing snow from their sidewalks.
Failure to do so is a misdemeanor punishable by up to a $500 fine and up to 90 days in jail.
Robinson said he is aware of an occasional report of a person riding a wheelchair in the road because of snow-covered sidewalks. But he believes the majority
of property owners keep their sidewalks clear.
In Portage, enforcement of the city’s snow-removal ordinance is complaint-driven, said Jack Hartman, director of the city’s streets and equipment division.
The city’s community development department investigates complaints and issues $50 tickets if sidewalks are not cleared.
The city usually gets 20 to 30 complaints a year and writes 10 to 12 tickets, Hartman said.
“I wouldn’t call it a major problem,” Hartman said about snowy sidewalks.
Changes this year
In response to complaints, some communities are stepping up efforts this year to tackle snow removal, either by cracking down on property owners who fail
to shovel or by spending more tax dollars to pay to get the job done.
In South Haven, where street plowing can throw more snow onto sidewalks, the city is expanding its plowing services to include four additional miles of
sidewalks downtown and along routes students walk to school. The extra snow plowing will cost an estimated $30,000, said City Manager Brian Dissette.
But Dissette said there are no guarantees the city will have the funds to continue
sidewalk snow removal.
“What I’ve said to the citizens and the council, is that this is not a solution,” he said.
To permanently fund snow removal of sidewalks would require increasing property taxes or cutting other services, Dissette said.
Otsego’s Beard said that while business owners and residents are responsible for keeping properties cleared, the city helps out — when staff is available
— to clear sidewalks downtown and along main routes to schools.
“Occasionally, we come through,” he said.
Kalamazoo Township this year strengthened its snow-removal ordinance by boosting enforcement and increasing fines for those who fail to clear their walkways.
Township officials began considering stronger action after a woman in a wheelchair got stuck in a snowdrift while she was traveling near West Main Street
and Jenks Boulevard two years ago, said Treasurer George Cochran. Two passers-by ended up rescuing the woman.
The ordinance states people living near a school or bus stop or on county and state roads must keep their sidewalks clear of ice and snow more than 2 inches
deep within 36 hours of accumulation. Repeat offenders face stiffer fines: Within a three-year period,
first-time offenders are fined $30, $60 for a second offense and up to $120 for four offenses.
The township uses an ordinance enforcement officer to monitor compliance.
“If no one is living in the property for three months during the winter,” such as retirees who leave for warmer climates, “its going to be a problem for
them,” Cochran said.
“They’re not used to having to make arrangements to keep their sidewalks cleaned while they’re gone. ... The way the ordinance is written, it (tickets)
will continue to build up.”
Cochran said those with disabilities or senior citizens who can’t physically shovel should call the township about possibly getting assistance.
Brent Garlow, owner of Garlow Property Maintenance in Portage, said homeowners who leave town for the winter generally pay to have their drives cleared
every time snowfall exceeds a few inches. Adding the sidewalk to the job would be an additional $10 for an average lot, he said.
A dangerous path
On a recent winter day, Gashaw, a retired cook, was riding east in her wheelchair on Crosstown Parkway near the apartment where she lives.
There is a patch of snow-covered sidewalk that Gashaw knows her wheelchair will get stuck in, so she goes around it and into the street where cars whiz
It isn’t safe, but it’s the only way she can get around if her path isn’t clear, Gashaw said.
Brian Culver, president of Kalamazoo-based All American Roll Models, which helps people with disabilities identify resources, said he doesn’t believe property
owners are being malicious when they neglect to shovel their walkways.
“It’s not that they don’t care,” said Culver, who was injured in a car accident in 1994 and became a quadriplegic. “Most people don’t understand. I didn’t
understand until I got hurt.”
What helps, Culver said, is for store owners to ask their customers with disabilities if they had trouble accessing the building.
“Ninety-five percent of the time, they’ll go out of their way to make it right,” Culver said.
Contact Gabrielle Russon at
grusson at kalamazoogazette.com
or 269-388-8412. Staff writer Rosemary Parker contributed to this report.
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