Reader view: City, not residents, should be responsible for snow removal on sidewalks

Photos courtesy Luke Distelhorst

Former Edmonds City Councilmember Luke Distelhorst submitted this email to the Edmonds City Council and members of city staff Dec. 4. It is being republished here with the author’s permission.

It’s day five of this winter’s first snow event, and many of our sidewalks are completely impassable to most residents. This is an unfortunate consequence of car prioritization and the ineffectual city code that requires property owners to actively manage maintaining public right of way (ECC 9.20).

With the 2023 budget not yet finalized, I would like to request that before being finalized, or with a Q1 2023 budget amendment, the city prioritizes development of a plan to actively manage snow removal on sidewalks.

Residents who do not or cannot drive deserve mobility solutions that they are not receiving, as the city only removes snow for car travel.

Transit stops, bike lanes, and sidewalks are largely inaccessible to anyone with a mobility concern, pushing a stroller, or even individuals who are just unable to manage crossing 12-20 inches of frozen snow and ice blocks deposited by street plows (even tough for me as a young, able-bodied person).

I know we have dedicated and imaginative staff who can come up with great ideas on how to better serve our residents. A few possibilities could include:

– Prioritize sidewalk snow removal on the same corridors that are plowed. These sidewalks are often worse as snow that falls in the 40- to 60-foot right of way is piled entirely within the confines of a 4- to 6-foot sidewalk.

– Prioritize sidewalk snow removal within one-quarter-mile of schools, grocery stores, medical offices and other essential destinations that our residents need to access on a daily basis. Snohomish County PUD actually has a similar restoration priority for power!

If public works staff, once done plowing, cannot perform this work, then it could be contracted out. Many businesses have contracted out parking lot snow removal, but not sidewalks. If city staff are unable or do not have the capacity to handle this work, the city could simply pay for it.

A sensible use of taxpayer funds!

With annual snow events, it’s time to start caring for the mobility of all of our residents, not only those with cars. If you want to google and search around, you’ll find articles like this (bloom.bg/3VDcPB3) and see that yesterday on Highway 99 in Everett a driver tragically killed someone who was shoveling snow along the road.

The multifamily property where we live shovels our sidewalks, crosswalks and nearby bus stops every year.

We are an outlier in our neighborhood, unfortunately, and given the resources the city is already putting toward cars, let’s take a more holistic look at what our residents need and how the city can support them.

— By Luke Distelhorst

  1. I wholeheartedly agree with Mr. Distelhorst. Edmonds has a high number of pedestrians compared to other Seattle suburbs; however, we do not act like it by prioritizing pedestrian safety as we should. Timely snow removal from the sidewalks on the most heavily walked streets in Edmonds should be something the city concerns itself with.

  2. Mr Distelhorst’s narrative should be taken seriously because the injuries that result from slipping and falling on ice, snow and concrete can cause significant disability. Patients who fall on snow/ice often incur injuries that result in missed work, missed time taking care of family, and occasionally require urgent surgical referrals.

  3. I too have wondered about Edmonds’ snow removal protocols. It seems as though the system is designed to deposit plowed snow precisely onto adjacent sidewalks, rendering them impassable to people on foot.

    Years ago, I was passing through Montreal in mid-winter. It was the first time I’d seen a very small sidewalk-sized snowplow. It seemed to work very well to clear public sidewalks, or at least a path wide enough to accommodate pedestrians. It can be done. I hope Public Works and City Council take up Luke’s suggestions and move them forward.

  4. Thank you for this timely reprint! I’m a senior with a disability, and walking anywhere during a snow event is a real struggle. I use “Spikey” grippers on my shoes, and sometimes walking poles, but it’s very tiring to get around on foot when wading through snow and maneuvering cautiously on ice.

  5. YES – this is important. Kudos to our city workers but please consider adding sidewalks to plowing plans. I ride the bus a lot and it’s great in the snow, but bus stops are hazardous with snow and ice. Please do this!

  6. I agree, and this would include the storm debris of late. I see numerous stretches of sidewalks that are covered with leaves and branches from the winter storms. I have been told by the city that I am responsible for the sidewalk fronting my home and I do keep it clear. However there are many locations that sidewalks are not abutting homes. The city should be clearing those sidewalks.

  7. While I agree with the comments made, my question is that, by the city being responsible for snow removal on sidewalks does that remove the liability for any accidents or injuries from the property owners of the adjacent sidewalks and place it with the city?

    1. I am going to say here. City owns sidewalks but care/maintenance, and responsibility/liability lies on the homeowner.

  8. In lieu of adding additional expectations and tasks to city staff and our street department right now, I would like to see say thank you to our street department for keeping us safe. As many of us worry about getting out for gifts, grocery store, etc. our street department helps alleviate some of that stress. The men and women of the street department have to go to work in the worst of conditions, before and after work, in hazardous conditions to help keep us all safe. They are doing all of this in yet the second storm in December. To that I say thank you and Happy Holidays to all of you!

  9. Seems like the city could purchase a bunch of small snow blowers and allow a volunteer citizens core to use them, as well as employees, to get the critical sidewalks around town cleared as much as possible. In the Midwest almost all property owners with significant size property own and use their own power snow removal equipment (snow blowers). Of course this will be anathema to the anti small gasoline engine lobby and fanatical climate solvers all over town.

  10. The sidewalk along Olympic View Drive was impassable for several days after the last snowfall. Plowing on the street was great, but the snow was deposited on the sidewalk, where it formed big, icy clumps (“death cookies” in ski language). The problem is, for whoever is responsible for keeping sidewalks open – where do you put the snow? Shoveling it back onto the street seems self-defeating, but in many places on OVD, hedges and fencing leave nowhere to put the snow!

    1. I have lived for a long time on Edmonds way, close to a bus stop. In all the years it has never been cleared and never an expectation.

  11. I see I misspelled Corps. above. Surprised you didn’t catch me on that Nathaniel. Good points in your comment. Both sides of Main Street hill are probably another area that could use sidewalk attention by someone to help pedestrians during snow events. Another approach might be for the city to have a fund dedicated to hire young people, when schools are closed, or any others capable, to clear these critical areas by hand and small machinery. A simple notice to show up somewhere and earn a nice check for each days work completed. Seems like as few as a couple city employees from about any department that wasn’t busy due to the snow could temporarily manage such a thing. Park workers and grounds keepers could temporarily be in charge of managing non-road snow removal temp. employees for example.

    1. I would think on snow days the city would have workers whose regular job can’t be done or whose duties are unnecessary during the snow that could be put to work during these rare events all the city would need is a few snowblowers and some deicer. But the point about gas powered loud machines needs to be taken into consideration we don’t want to disturb the peace or pollute the planet. Sorry Luke not much can be done about the bike lanes in the snow because they are part of road and the road always gets narrower in the snow.

      1. Posted on behalf of Ron Wambolt:
        Evidently the City of Edmonds requires that the occupants of properties keep the sidewalks on their properties clear of snow. That does not surprise me at all because that has been the expectation in the numerous communities I’ve lived in. I also believe that it is a reasonable expectation since it seems like it would be a huge expense for the city to take on, particularly if done in a timely manner.

        Obviously doing the snow removal would be too much of a physical hardship for many, so they’d need to hire someone to do it just like they must do for many other chores that need to be done around their properties.

        Some have commented on where to put the snow that’s removed. Usually it can be placed in the city right-of-way between the sidewalk and the curb. I have just observed today’s clearing of two corner properties near my residence and that’s where they placed the snow from their sidewalks.

        I’ve lived in this area for 43 years and it seems like snow storms have become more frequent, and the snow more long lasting. The city administration needs to clearly state their expectations and then enforce those expectations.

  12. I don’t know what provisions exist for clearing the sidewalks in the Edmonds downtown core. When I worked in Seattle, it seems it was always the responsibility of the businesses to clear in front of their buildings for insurance purposes.

    My experience during the last snow was that I was not able to get to the side walk. Snow ploughing created a berm at the edge of my driveway so that I was not able to drive my car in or out of my driveway. That persisted for several days till the snow sufficiently melted. It remains to be seen what happens this time.

  13. I’m a senior citizen and dislike snow intensely because whether on foot or in a vehicle it makes moving around more difficult. However, I think we have to have realistic expectations. Citing cities like Montreal in terms of snow removal seems a bit of a stretch to me. We are in a part of the country where snow is not usually a regular or long term occurrence. Therefore, we don’t have the dedicated equipment and resourses that cities like Montreal do.

    I question how sidewalks could be ploughed without displacing the snow to the street? Same with snow blowers. The snow has to go somewhere. However, I think deicer on sidewalks is definitely a must and could more easily be managed.

    I also think while it may be in the best interest and/or responsibility of businesses to clear a path to their business, it is not reasonable to expect businesses that are closed as a result of snow to show up and do so. And again, where does the removed snow go?

  14. This is from an email from Ken Reidy to Mayor Nelson and city staff that I was copied on. MRSC is the Municipal Research and Services Center. It has important information for those commenting on this thread:

    “The following is taken from MRSC:

    Practice Tip: Shoveling snow is a physically strenuous task. The combination of the physical strain and cold temperatures can increase the risk of heart attacks, particularly in older individuals, not to mention the risk of injury from slips and falls. Elderly residents or people with disabilities may be physically unable to shovel snow, in which case some jurisdictions maintain lists of volunteers who can assist them.

    Please make sure our residents know this!

    Why would our residents be responsible for clearing snow off sidewalks unless the resident placed the snow there themselves? Why would our residents have any responsibility to remove snow and ice the city’s plow trucks pushed onto sidewalks? Please give this deeper thought.”

  15. I think the city just needs to mark all the icy sidewalks with orange paint. Apparently that makes them safe and no need to do anything further.

  16. When I lived in Northern Canada, winter went on for months and months. As did the snow. Folks who couldn’t clear their own sidewalks would hire a couple of neighborhood kids to shovel the snow. (Some enterprising kids turned it into a winter business.)

  17. I think the biggest challenges are liability and scale. I’ve been Googling policies and laws around the country. The vast majority, as the Bloomberg article says, have property owners responsible for clearing their sidewalks, and property owners are liable. Ottawa, Ontario, also has “grit boxes” at certain intersections and asks citizens to please throw sand from the boxes on the sidewalk, if it’s icy.
    What I didn’t see in the Bloomberg article was whether any of the cities that now clear sidewalks assume the liability. It’s possible, given some liability laws are state-level, that residents are liable for the way the city leaves the sidewalk.
    All of the cities in the Bloomberg article, and all but one that I looked up, are also much bigger than Edmonds and have more snow, more often. (Bad Axe, Michigan requires commercial property to clear snow but clears residential areas. What would it cost here, for what level of use? If the city “hires” students, what happens when someone gets hurt? There are a lot of questions I’d want answered before the Council decides something like this.

  18. We don’t have to shovel because we don’t have sidewalks but if we did, my husband would shovel the walk. I could not shovel the walk, nor could many of my neighbors for many reasons. The city piling snow up on sidewalks wasn’t the best idea, making them unusable.

    I am a bit frustrated with our city prioritizing parks, bike lanes before making sure all neighborhoods are treated equally. I live in the port district, my privilege for this is higher taxes, not even a key to the port bathrooms, we are taxed on. We live right below Esperance and apparently we have no Clout.

    So everyone that is upset about the snow and who is responsible for what, consider what you have is more than many residents.

  19. It is important to note (but apparently not important to Mr. Distelhorst) that not all Edmonds streets have sidewalks. Using taxpayer money to fund an occasional seasonal practice for a populace that already reaps the benefits of past taxpayer-funded efforts (i.e., having sidewalks installed) is yet another example of the “highly favored” attitude that some Edmonds elected officials, past and present, continue to display for some neighborhoods over others. As for bus stops: Why wouldn’t clearing these be the responsibility of the bus service?

  20. Yes, I agree. I’m an individual without a driver’s license who regularly uses public transit, but moving all the snow to the sidewalks makes bus stops nearly inaccessible. It should be up to the city to make these accessible to pedestrians and bus riders

  21. City Staff Proclamation to all Citizens: Stop complaining you useless Peons and get out there and shovel that snow. Just who do you think you are anyway? We have spoken, now do your Duty!

    Edmonds is the most fun place to live there ever was. I can’t wait to get home, snow and all.

  22. I just ran some errands around Edmonds, and was very disappointed by the merchants on Main, above the fountain, who have left the sidewalk a sheet of ice. Can’t shovel? Then sand or salt.

    Some have done a very good job – others seem not to care about the safety of their customers.

  23. Nathaniel Brown, I assume based on your comments that you have shoveled or deiced snow in front of your residence. But regardless, I think perhaps you comment is somewhat short sighted. Personally, I find the city code on snow removal less than clear and wonder if the requirements have been officially communicated to businesses .
    What was published yesterday stated it was the “responsibility of the individual property owner.” Could be interpreted as a grey area if not a property owner operated business. Also, I’m sure some business owners and/or operators do not live in the area or are dealing with snow situations elsewhere. Some businesses remain closed and that may mean owners/operators can’t get there. Care and kindness go a long way and it’s a two way street.

    1. Actually, there is no sidewalk in front of my house, but I think I can safely say that in a life in the ski business I have blown, shoveled, sanded and salted more snow than most!

      Whether or not the city code puts snow removal on the householder or property owner, the ice sheets in front of some businesses above the fountain on Main are a distinct hazard, and if shoveling is impossible, scattering a bit of salt or sand isn’t, and takes seconds. At the very least, it’s much easier than recovering from a bad fall – and public-spirited as well.

      The businesses I noted were up and running, with owners or employees present, not dealing with something somewhere else, and as the snow and ice have been with us for several days now, I’m sure some opportunity will have presented itself to scatter some sand or salt in the spirit of care and kindness.

  24. I agree Mr. Brown. One would think that a Business owner would gladly provide a safe and clear path to their establishment for their Customers. Apparently, the businesses of which you speak could not care less about their Customers or potential Customers.
    Am I right that when you say ‘above the fountain’ that you mean to the east on Main?

    1. Yes, east, up the hill. No names, as I do not want to focus attention on anyone in particular – I just want safe sidewalks. And some have done a great job!

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