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When Push Comes to Shovel

County criticized for not following own rules.

Allen Cohen isn’t sure who’s supposed to clear the sidewalk along Eldwick Way when he walks his dog every day. All Cohen can do is make sure he’s wearing good boots with sure traction — the sidewalk was never cleared of the snow that fell on Jan. 22 when two more snowstorms hit last weekend.

“Eldwick Way is sort of a no-man’s land,” said Cohen. “The sidewalk is a perfect example.”

THE PEDESTRIAN WINTER Safety Act of 2001, passed in spring of that year and made effective that winter, requires that property owners or tenants clear snow and ice from the sidewalks in front of their homes within 24 hours of a snowfall.

The cleared pathway must be wide enough for safe pedestrian and wheelchair use. Violators receive a written warning and get 24 hours to correct the violation or face a $50 fine. For commercial and multifamily properties, but not single-family properties, each day that a violation continues warrants a new fine. In addition to fines, the county can clear snow and ice and charge a violator for the cost.

That’s how the law stands in the books, but there is no department in Montgomery County responsible for the enforcement of this law, said Linda Bird, manager of the county’s Housing Code Enforcement office.

The county has received about 30 reports of uncleared sidewalks this year, Bird said, a lower rate than usual despite recent weather. And if the sidewalk remains uncleared? “We never get to that part of it,” said Bird. “Most people don’t get another [letter] from us; they take care of the problem,” or the snow melts shortly after the complaint is filed.

Private walkways and unpaved walkways are not covered by the law and the County Executive may suspend or alter the requirement at his discretion.

The bill was sponsored by Councilmember Phil Andrews (D-3) along with then-Councilmember Isiah Leggett and then-Council Vice President Steve Silverman (D-At Large). It passed by a 5-3 vote.

“IT TAKES a community working together to provide safe sidewalks after a snowstorm. ... You have to have people helping to get it done,” Andrews said. “There are enforcement mechanisms in the law. the intention is not to come at people with a heavy hand. ... The intention is really to prod people to do the right thing, which is to help provide a safe connected system of sidewalks, which many residents of Montgomery County rely on to get around.”

“The fact was that before this law was passed ... all too often sidewalks were just not cleared,” said County Council spokesman Patrick Lacefield, who noted that similar municipal laws existed in Rockville, Gaithersburg, and Takoma Park before the county-wide law was passed. “It's not perfect now — it's a big county — but the sense that I get is that now it's better.”

“The raison de etre to this thing is that ... there are some people that depend on transit to get to work, or that walk to work for that matter. ... Also there are schoolkids that walk to school. One of the things that prompted this in the first place was that there were school kids that had to walk in the street to get to school,” Lacefield said.

The county provides an online form for residents to report sidewalks that remain unshoveled more than 24 hours after the snow has fallen.

THE FOCUS OF THE LAW isn't punitive, Lacefield said, “the emphasis is on getting the sidewalks clear,” and the requirement itself leads to more civic responsibility.

In that spirit, Councilmember Nancy Floreen (D-At Large) sponsors an annual “Golden Shovel” awards program that recognizes county residents who “go above and beyond in helping keep county sidewalks clear of ice and snow.” The award has gone to 44 residents in the last two years.

Such efforts are important for county residents, such as the elderly, who want to abide by the law but may not be capable of doing the shoveling themselves. In the past, CASA of Maryland has provided workers to shovel sidewalks at a reasonable cost. Another resource is the county's volunteer center, which tries to link up volunteers with those who may need help shoveling.

But, “the best bet though frankly is for people to develop relationships with their neighbors because I think that most neighbors are happy to help,” Andrews said.

IN THE CASE of Eldwick Way, Cohen hasn’t found anybody eager to claim responsibility for the sidewalk, which abuts Falls Road Golf Course. Cohen said he has placed calls to the golf course, and has been told that Montgomery County — not course personnel — is responsible for the sidewalks.

“That's not our job. That's not our property,” said Marc Atz, executive director of the Montgomery County Revenue Authority, which operates the public golf course system. “We've never cleared the sidewalks along Eldwick Way. ... We stop at the property line.”

Atz said that the revenue authority has not received any requests from the community to clear sidewalks abutting the Falls Road course.

“This is a new one on me. I've been here eight years and never heard such a request,” Atz said.

“If you and I are responsible for our property, why aren’t they responsible for theirs?” Cohen said

“That criticism is made from time to time,” Lacefield said. “The extent to which the county doesn’t clear its own stuff while asking other people to clear — that's a problem.”