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Tuesday, January 21st, 2014

Winter's weary work: Sidewalks must be cleared

Local laws for snow removal often ignored by residents, officials

By Shelley Grieshop

Carrie Koesters blows snow in front of her home on Beckman Avenue in St. Henry o. . .

Carrie Koesters steered her snowblower through foot-high drifts on her sidewalk Monday afternoon.
The St. Henry woman wasn't clearing the paved walk along Beckman Avenue because it's the law in her town. She had no idea there was one.
"No, I wasn't aware of that," she said.
Many homeowners remove snow from their driveways and sidewalks to avoid trudging through the white stuff, not necessarily for others' benefit.
"I don't think there's many people using sidewalks in this weather anyway," Koesters added.
St. Henry's ordinance requires residents to "clear snow, ice or other obstructions" from sidewalks within 12 hours of a weather event. The law - one that is on the books in most local communities - is a misdemeanor that fines violators $100.
The good news for residents with bad backs and no snowblowers: not one area official who spoke to The Daily Standard could recall a citation ever being issued.
"It's hard to enforce, especially since they (property owners) didn't actually put the snow there," Coldwater Village Manager/Engineer Eric Thomas said.
Thomas said he gets several complaints each year from residents who tattle on others. Sometimes he's forced to confront the violators, he said.
"I tell people, for the most part, use common sense," he said.
Coldwater's ordinance states that "no owner or occupant of lots or lands abutting any sidewalk, curb or gutter shall fail to keep the sidewalks, curbs and gutters in repair and free from snow, ice or any nuisance ... ."
Thomas said he finds the "curb and gutter" reference somewhat absurd.
"Not many people clear their curb or gutter," he said.
Coldwater's ordinance was adopted from the Ohio Basic Code, which provides small municipalities with legislative guidance.
St. Marys Safety Service Director Greg Foxhoven said the city has a similar ordinance, which takes the issue one step further: If the task isn't completed in a reasonable time, the city will do it and assess the property owner for the work.
"I don't know if we've ever cited anyone but we do ask them first," Foxhoven said. "The primary reason is keeping the sidewalks clear for kids walking to school or delivering papers, so they don't go out in the street."
Citing violators isn't a goal; achieving compliance is, he added.
"Once you reason with people they almost always comply," he added.
Tom Hitchcock, safety service director for Celina, said the city also has a minor misdemeanor law in place.
"But no one here can remember anybody being charged," he said.
A glitch in the city's regulations may be the problem.
"It gives no timeframe. It's nonenforceable," Hitchcock noted.
When asked if he intended to make it enforceable, he opted out.
"It's up to the city council to clean up the rules," he said.
Hitchcock said the issue is much more pressing for sidewalks children regularly use traveling to and from school. He, too, said he doesn't want youngsters heading into traffic to avoid the snow.
Gary Westgerdes on Monday shoveled a strip of sidewalk in front of his home at 313 E. Wayne St. - a few blocks from Celina East Elementary.
"I think it's (the law) a good idea especially on sidewalks that get a lot of traffic," he said, adding he doesn't want to see anyone slip and fall, especially youngsters.
A random visit to several area communities this week found fewer than half the properties with sidewalks free of snow.
Ohio law does not place a legal obligation on homeowners to shovel their sidewalks but allows municipalities to create their own rules. The state Supreme Court in 1993 ruled that people walk at their own risk on natural snow- and ice-covered paths.
"A homeowner is not liable for 'natural accumulations,' " St. Henry attorney Paul Howell confirmed, adding the exemption applies even if residents invite people onto their property and someone falls on the snow or ice.
It also doesn't matter if the homeowner had attempted to clear the walk and someone still fell, he added. But there are actions that could prompt a lawsuit, Howell said.
"There are things you can do that could get you in trouble such as rerouting a gutter that starts flowing onto a sidewalk and freezes and someone slips," he said. "Then it's considered negligence."
Howell's best advice is get out and shovel.
"I do it. I feel sorry for my mailman if I don't, so I do my Christian duty and clear them," he said.
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