City Won’t Write More Snow Shoveling Tickets, But Fines Are Increasing

Chicago Winter Snow Blizzard 2011: Photo 17
The new ordinance would require merchants and business owners to clear a five-foot path, as well as wheelchair ramps. Photo: Matt Maldre

It’s puzzling why the city of Chicago hasn’t done more in the past to ensure that business and property owners promptly clear their sidewalks after snowstorms. Snowy and icy sidewalks are a major barrier for people with disabilities, seniors, and families with small children, and they’re a big annoyance for everyone else.

Tickets for failure to clear snow are easily avoidable if people do the right thing by shoveling or plowing. If they don’t, the fines are a well-deserved penalty, and a good source of revenue for our cash-strapped city. However, the Chicago Department of Transportation only issued only 226 such tickets last winter, with 90 percent of the fines going to merchants and owners of apartment and condo buildings, according to CDOT.

But the city is moving in the right direction with a proposed ordinance that would raise the fines for failure to shovel from the current $25 to $100 range to $50 to 500. The new legislation goes before City Council on Wednesday as part of the vote on Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s overall budget plan.

While a CDOT summary of the new ordinance states “There are no current plans to increase enforcement,” the higher potential fines would provide the city with a bigger stick to deter violations and punish the worst offenders. “By raising the fines, the city is better equipping CDOT personnel to issue meaningful penalties for building owners who do not shovel their sidewalks,” said CDOT spokesman Pete Scales. “The city is establishing a fine range that can be adjusted based on the scale of the violation.”

There are a bunch of other positive aspects of the new ordinance. It clarifies that business owners, as well as residential property owners, must clear a five-foot-wide path, as well as adjacent wheelchair ramps. It specifies the mandatory timeframe for shoveling:

Snow which falls or accumulates between the hours of seven a.m. and seven p.m. shall be removed as soon as practicable, but no later than ten p.m. of the same day. Snow which falls or accumulates overnight between the hours of seven p.m. and seven a.m. shall be removed as soon as practicable, but no later than ten a.m. of the same day.

Another nice addition is the stipulation that snow can’t be shoveled or blown into the street, including bike lanes. The new ordinance also states the shoveled snow may not block train stations, bus stops, building entrances bike racks, or bike-share stations. As a bonus, the legislation clarifies that newpaper boxes may not be placed within five feet of a bike rack or Divvy station.

Of course, higher penalties for merchants and private property owners won’t address the significant issue of uncleared sidewalks that aren’t located by buildings. That’s a major problem on local bridges. Meanwhile, the Department of Streets and Sanitation does an excellent job of plowing streets for drivers.

And it really would be great to see the city take the bull by the horns when it comes to increasing enforcement. Sure, there would be some political pushback if large amounts of tickets are issued, but the move would also be applauded by citizens who would appreciate not having to deal with snowy, slushy, or icy walking conditions. That would be one less winter aggravation.

Chicago really should follow the lead of Evanston, which first issues warnings to shoveling scofflaws, then tickets them, and finally hires contractors to clear the sidewalks, billing the property owners an average of $190 for the service. An approach like that would not only deter lawbreaking and fill the city of Chicago’s coffers, it would also create jobs.

  • Three Green Kashira

    Vacant lots have always been an issue with sidewalk snow removal. in west town/humboldt, specifically NW corner of Western/Chicago which has bus stops for 2 major bus routes and lots of transferring, and also NE corner of Division/California (thankfully no bus stops, but heavy foot traffic).

  • Lisa Curcio

    The city has it backward–it does not matter what the ordinance provides as a fine if nothing is done to enforce it. Property owners who don’t care enough to clear sidewalks for fellow citizens are going to take their chances because the odds of getting a ticket–whether the fine is $25 or $250–are in their favor.

  • neroden

    In the long run, this is no way to handle snow. The city plows the streets, the city should plow the sidewalks too.

    As Three Green Kashira points out, this ‘ordinance” method has a giant hole: vacant lots. As you also pointed out, bridges aren’t next to buildings and so they don’t get plowed.

    The city should simply assess a sidewalk fee to property owners and use the funding to plow the sidewalks.

  • cjlane

    “this ‘ordinance” method has a giant hole: vacant lots”

    Only to the extent that the lot is owned by someone with $0.00, or by the city. Absentee land owners are not exempted from the ordinance.

    “The city should simply assess a sidewalk fee to property owners and use the funding to plow the sidewalks.”

    You’ve seen how long it takes the city to plow side streets, right? So you’d be ok with a (probably) $100+ annual fee to wait 3 or 4 days (if you’re lucky) to have your sidewalk cleared? I’m not.

  • neroden

    It’s all very well to try to convince lazy absentee landowners to take care of the property, but that just ends in foreclosure. And then it’s a city lot. So.

    “You’ve seen how long it takes the city to plow side streets, right?”

    Yeah, that is an issue! There are cities which actually do plow their side streets promptly. Chicago is not one of them.

  • cjlane

    “And then it’s a city lot. So.”

    So they get ’eminent domain’ (-ish) for less than the price of taxes on a vacant lot, and the ability to re-sell to someone who will do something with the land.

    Yeah, bad in the very short run, but probably better in the medium term.

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