It’s Really, Really Hard to Get Fined for Not Shoveling a Slippery Sidewalk

Photo: David Sachs

During December’s snowstorm, Denver’s Public Works and Parks and Rec departments dispatched 96 snow plows that worked overnight to clear major roads of snow and ice. The response to the storm, which dropped as much as 10 inches on the Mile High City, was necessary to make streets safer for buses, cars, and bicyclists.

Which makes the city’s protocol for keeping sidewalks safe farcical. It’s up to residents and merchants to clear the walkways in front of their homes businesses, but if they don’t… meh.

Here’s how it works: Residents have 24 hours to shovel after the snow stops falling. Business owners have four. If sidewalks aren’t cleared, the city takes a longwinded and reactive approach, relying on complaints that come through 311 and City Council offices.

From there, this is the typical workflow for the first snowstorm of the season, according to Community Planning and Development spokesperson Andrea Burns:

  1. A Zoning/Neighborhood Inspection Services employee visits the property the day after the complaint.
  2. The employee warns the property owner with a door hanger that reminds her or him about shoveling laws. If they’re a repeat violator, the employee may skip this step.
  3. The employee issues a “violation notice.” The notice tells the property owner to clear their walk. It doesn’t carry a fine.
  4. Another 24 hours later, the city employee revisits the property. If the sidewalk still isn’t clear, the property owner gets a second notice. Still no fine.
  5. Another 24 hours later, the city employee visits the property again — at which point they may fine the owner $150. The fourth notice is $500 and the fifth is $999.

It usually doesn’t come to that, though. Probably because, according to this protocol, property owners have four to five days to clear their sidewalk before facing even the possibility of a fine.

“As the city grows and more people are choosing to walk or take transit, it’s increasingly important that whatever system we have for removing snow from sidewalks is effective,” said WalkDenver Policy Director Jill Locantore. “Arguably, a process that typically takes several days to resolve is not that effective.”

December’s snow storm ended on the 15th. Between December 14th and 21st, the city received complaints about 182 strips of sidewalk. About 58 percent of cases were either fixed by the time the inspector arrived or after a warning, according to the city. Six days after the storm ended, about 40 percent of the cases were still open — meaning property owners had received a notice of some kind, but inspectors hadn’t returned to verify compliance. The city issued four fines.

“Our inspectors’ approach following the first major snow event of the season is to go heavier on education than penalties,” said CPD spokesperson Andrea Burns. “As the season progresses, and especially for properties with recurring violations, inspectors have the discretion to skip the notices and go straight to fines. That said, notices without fines usually produce the kind of results we want.”

Okay, so the system works according to standard protocol. But that protocol is setup to leave many sidewalks unsafe for several days after a storm. To be clear, this isn’t an indictment of the 24 employees who oversee 4,000 miles of sidewalks. They have a hard job. The problem lies with the systematic neglect for sidewalks, which blizzards make even more crucial for getting to and from transit, or to the grocery store.

Perhaps Denver’s hands-off policy isn’t surprising. This is a city that closes its sidewalks when it snows. Other cities take sidewalk clearance more seriously. In New York, for instance, property owners face fines if they fail to shovel sidewalks within four hours after a snowfall. Another option for Denver would be to devote city resources to shoveling important transit corridors, rather than relying on reactive enforcement.

“The city does a great job of removing snow from sidewalks in public parks, which is wonderful,” Locantore said. “How much more effort would it take for the city to shovel sidewalks in other key pedestrian areas, like along major transit routes?”