Evanston residents and property owners must clear their sidewalks after any accumulation of snow. Image from the City of Evanston

Business owners and residents will face new rules for keeping sidewalks clear of snow and ice this winter under ordinance changes approved by Evanston City Council  members at the June 22 City Council meeting.

In an 8-1 vote, aldermen approved new rules that require removal of snow and ice from sidewalks after any accumulation, dumping their old rule that required four inches of accumulation to take place.

Under the ordinance changes, residents and business owners will be responsible for clearing a 36-inch-wide path in front of their properties within 24 hours after any accumulation of snow.

In addition, the ordinance would require them to demonstrate “best efforts” –  which could include use of sand, salt or other deicers – to  clear snow and ice from any path which may lead to a crosswalk or other area to cross the street at an intersection.

Fines for violations would range $50 for a first violation, $200 for a second, and $450 for a third, and any subsequent violation under the amended ordinance. The fines are only assessed after being found liable at the City’s Administrative Adjudication Court, Johanna Nyden, the City’s Director of Community Development, pointed out in a memo.

The current fine structure is $100 for the first infraction, $250 for the second, and then $540 for the third.

Staff had introduced the ordinance in February, citing hazardous and even dangerous conditions for those needing to use sidewalks after a snow event when the walks had not been shoveled or cleared.

Officials stressed that the program was not meant to be punitive and that a number of measures would be taken, including inspectors’ placing door-hangers on residences, as a reminder of the need to shovel, to gain compliance.

Some aldermen had balked at when the changes were initially proposed as too punitive.

In response, staff lowered the highest fine proposed, from $750 for a third violation to the $450 amount and made changes in language.

Speaking at the June 22 meeting, Alderman Peter Braithwaite, 2nd Ward, said, “I had my concerns about this the first time it was presented to the City Council, and after having a few conversations now with Director Leonard, I feel like we’re there, and I’m comfortable with supporting it.”

Alderman Thomas Suffredin, 6th Ward, the only aldermen to vote against the ordinance, raised concern, though, that there are still “a lot of people who might like to comply, but might not be able to.”

He asked about the possibility of the City’s establishing a program, matching up people who might have trouble complying with the new requirements with people who would be willing to do the shoveling for a fee.

He offered as an example, a 74-year old person, suffering from a bad back, and facing 50 feet of sidewalk to be cleared after a snow.

“That person could be signed up with such a program where there’s somebody obligated to do it,” he suggested, “and the City knows that, so I’m not going to get hit with a ticket for failing to clear my sidewalk.”

He said another participant in that kind of program might be a senior who travels, and who might want to be in compliance, but is not always around to do so.

In response, Ms. Nyden said staff is looking into the possibility of some kind of arrangement.

“There are some communities that have used schools, giving high school students gym credit for shoveling walks,” she noted.

Ald. Suffredin stressed that the program should be one that is officially recognized by the City, so residents know they are covered against receiving a ticket.

“I know you’re interested trying to make it clear that the intention is compliance, not violations,” he said to Ms. Nyden. “But, believe it or not, there are a lot of people who do not trust the City, and even a door-hanger that’s friendly – it’s perceived as an aggressive enforcement action. So I’d like to try, since we’re still in the summer, to figure out a way that people are not feeling like they’re getting picked on, the same way that they do with parking tickets, or like violations for property standards.”

Ms. Nyden indicated she would look into it as a possible stopgap that’s “a little bit more effective than what we currently have, which is a list of volunteers.”

Ald. Cicely Fleming, 9th Ward, asked about the ordinance as it applies to corners, “because we know when the snow plows go around the corner, they leave all the snow there unfortunately.”

Ms. Nyden noted that officials had softened language in the ordinance that pertains to cleanup at corners, calling on residents to make “best efforts,” and offering sand, salt, and deicers as alternatives to make such area accessible.

On the need for the ordinance overall, she noted the limits of the four-inches-of-accumulation rule.

“While this threshold may only be met a few times during the winter, sidewalks often are not passable after a few inches of snow or even a few tenths of an inch of ice,” she said in a memo. “They present hazardous and even dangerous conditions for those needing to utilize the sidewalk. Unless the total threshold is met, there is little ability to require property owners/responsible parties to remove snow.”

She noted that the City received 153 complaints about sidewalk conditions following two winter storms this past January.

“Following the first event (Jan. 17 to Jan. 21), the City had a total of 3.5 inches of snow and 0.22 inches of ice and received 99 complaints,” Ms. Nyden observed. “Since the four-inch threshold was not met at that time, there was no ability to require property owners to remove the accumulation from sidewalks.”

After some winter weather later the same month in which the City had reached the four-inch threshold, inspectors were able to issue notices of violation, she said.

Bob Seidenberg is an award-winning reporter covering issues in Evanston for more than 30 years. He is a graduate of the Northwestern University Medill School of Journalism.