City lets fines slide on snowy sidewalks
Senior marketing major Geoff Parker leans on his shovel and takes a sip of his Gatorade. At noon, temperatures are barely above zero, but a slight film of sweat has begun to form just above his eyes. He sets the bottle on his porch at 103 Oberlin Court. and returns to work. Thud-scrape goes the shovel. Swoosh goes the snow. At Parker's feet, a rare sight begins to emerge: a patch of gray sidewalk.
There are 61 miles of sidewalk in the City of Oxford, not counting Miami University's sidewalks. About a third of these are in the "Mile Square" alone, according to Oxford City Manager Doug Elliott. As winter draws on, snow and ice continue to pile up on walkways around the city; Elliott estimates only around 15 percent are being actively cleared.
The question then arises: whose job is it to clear the sidewalks?
"The Oxford city codified ordinances state that it is the responsibility of the property owner or occupant to remove all snow and ice," Elliott said. "Those in violation of this ordinance are guilty of a minor misdemeanor, which has a maximum fine of $150."
Several recent Ohio Supreme Court rulings however, have made local enforcement of such ordinances problematic, if not impossible, Elliott said, since the court ruled it unreasonable to expect citizens to remove natural accumulations of ice and snow in such a place as Ohio, where such "inherent dangers" are expected.
"This year, I am trying a different tactic," Elliott said. "Rather than reminding property owners and residents of the law and penalty, I am appealing to their better or neighborly natures."
In a statement posted Feb. 5 on the City of Oxford's website, Elliott called on Oxford residents to "please pitch in and shovel the snow off of the sidewalk in front of your house or business."
Yet several miles of sidewalk remain covered in white, particularly in stretches packed with student rentals. Associated Student Government Secretary for Off-Campus Affairs Ari Frum said this is largely due to the fact that students and property owners are unclear as to whose responsibility it is to clear the sidewalks.
"There's a question of whose responsibility it is," Frum said. "But even if students were to understand that it's their responsibility, would they take ownership of it? I'm not sure. I would love to see that."
With such ambiguity over the matter of snow removal, the City of Oxford has broached the subject of whether it ought to become the city's responsibility, Elliott said. The city has considered both the option of hiring private contractors to remove the snow and the option of purchasing $150,000 in equipment and hiring a staff to remove the snow. But neither option is feasible at the moment because of cost.
"We've estimated that to hire a contractor to take care of just one snow event would be around $10,000," Elliott said. "How would we pay for that? It's just not in the budget. Especially for a winter like this one where we've had [a lot of] snow events. We're talking about some serious money."
Though the city cannot foot the bill for private contractors anytime soon, many Oxford businesses employ them to keep their sidewalks clear. President of Dewitt Construction, Dave Dewitt said his company has contracts with a number of businesses Uptown and in Stewart Square.
"We used to do residential stuff too, but we just don't anymore," Dewitt said. "It's all businesses, with the exception of some rental properties that happen to be above businesses."
When it comes to clearing sidewalks, one cannot be too careful, Dewitt said.
"There are liabilities if you clear a sidewalk, period," Dewitt said. "If you shovel it, you've addressed a hazard and are responsible for whatever happens."
Robert Reddick, a Miami alumnus and partner at Kisling, Nestico and Reddick, LLC in Akron, Ohio, confirmed that issues of liability can arise when citizens choose to clear the sidewalks in front of their homes.
"If in clearing it, you create a hazard that wasn't there before, you could be held responsible," Reddick said.
Creating a hazard could entail any number of things-shoveling away snow but leaving a sheet of ice exposed, packing down the snow with tire tracks, allowing a leaky drainpipe to leak water onto the sidewalk creating an icy surface-but in order to win a case, the plaintiff would have to provide strong evidence for the fact that the conditions in which they were injured were not natural.
"The basic premise is that to have a property owner be responsible for constantly keeping their property clean of snow and ice is just burdensome," Reddick said. "You'd literally have to have someone standing by with a shovel at all times."
So although issues of liability can arise if citizens unintentionally create hazards by shoveling their sidewalks, such cases are fairly rare, Reddick said.
All matters of legality, responsibility and liability aside, Frum said he hoped to see students behaving as active members in the community.
"Help your fellow community members, help your fellow students," Frum said. "Talk to your property managers and figure out whose responsibility it is to clear the snow... But then, even if it's not your responsibility, I don't see why students couldn't take five minutes to shovel their sidewalks or those of their neighbors."
After Parker's housemate broke his ankle playing broomball, the slick sidewalks in front of his home could no longer be ignored. So Parker has found himself a shovel and gotten to work.
"It says in our lease that we're supposed to clear the sidewalks so I figured I'd better get it done," Parker says. "And maybe when I'm done, I'll go shovel my neighbor's sidewalk across the street."
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