Dear Denver: Don't Fine for Unshoveled Sidewalks Until Streets Are Clear

The conditions of many city streets is little improved nearly a week after the big storm.
The conditions of many city streets is little improved nearly a week after the big storm. @DenPublicWorks
Dear Denver,

It's been a helluva week, hasn't it? The pre-Thanksgiving storm caused havoc for travelers and those celebrating at home, too, with snowfall amounts measuring in feet across parts of the greater metro area. But it's been more than five full days since the primary white-stuff dump, and now some Denver residents are concerned that the city is going to start assessing fines for uncleared sidewalks while many streets remain indistinguishable from hockey rinks.

On that subject, we've got three words: Don't do it.

We understand the reasons for the rules about shoveling. As described on this page on the City of Denver's website, "Denver requires that property owners clear snow and ice from their sidewalks, including adjacent ADA ramps, so that EVERYONE has safe access throughout the city! Senior citizens, people with disabilities, parents with strollers, and mail carriers — just to name a few — struggle to negotiate hazardous walkways. We need to do our part to make our community safe and accessible for all."

The regulations call for inspectors to begin enforcement "after snow has stopped falling...checking business areas the same day and residential areas the following day. Inspectors check business areas proactively, and residential areas in response to complaints." After leaving "a time-stamped notice at properties with un-shoveled sidewalks," businesses are given four hours and residences have 24 hours to take care of the situation prior to a re-check and a potential fine that begins at $150 for a first offense, escalating to $500 and $999 for a second and third, respectively.

Problem is, temperatures that have mostly been in the 30s or lower have caused a partial-melt-and-re-freeze scenario that has made it difficult for even the most responsible property owners to keep pedestrian areas easily passable. The result is a thick layer of ice that seems largely impervious to sidewalk salt.

This should come as no surprise to the folks at Denver Public Works, who handle snow plowing for the city — a process that DPW spokesperson Nancy Kuhn described in detail earlier this year for a story we reposted in recent days. Although many of our readers haven't seen any plows out and about, the city insists drivers have been doing their best to chip away at the problem. But this morning, right and left lanes of major routes such as Broadway remain icy and snowpacked in spots, and side streets look like a backdrop from Frozen II. Here's a look at the 000 block of Sherman a short time ago:

click to enlarge This is what the 000 block of Sherman looked like this morning. - PHOTO BY MICHAEL ROBERTS
This is what the 000 block of Sherman looked like this morning.
Photo by Michael Roberts
Lots of walkways remain equally treacherous, and we understand how problematic that can be. The Denver Fire Department reportedly tracked 86 falls over a 48-hour period after the storm, and disability activists have gone on record to emphasize how many mobility problems uncleared sidewalks create for people who use wheelchairs and the like.

Then again, punishing residents for issues the city itself can't control would be the height of hypocrisy — and should homeowners who live on streets like the one above receive fines for sidewalks in a similar condition, you can bet they'll point that out.

Of course, this situation isn't isolated to the Denver area. I live in unincorporated Jefferson County, on a cul de sac that plows seldom visit. That changed with this storm; I actually saw a plow go through the neighborhood on the afternoon of November 26, much to my surprise.

Too bad it didn't make any difference. The road network throughout the entire neighborhood remains encased in ice, making it all but impossible for me to walk my dog without using an ice hammer and pitons.

Drivers have it no better. Yesterday, I witnessed a minor accident that looked like it took place in slow motion... because it did. Two cars trying to navigate a corner at under 15 miles per hour drifted toward each other like a pair of hot air balloons before crunching each other's fenders.

At 2:30 a.m. today — a time I can confirm, because that's when I was jolted awake — I thought Jeffco or another local agency had decided to plow my street again. I was wrong; I subsequently learned the equipment I heard scraping at ice was working in the parking lot at nearby Chatfield High School. But the pavement beyond my driveway certainly could have used the same treatment, as demonstrated by this shot from around 4:30 a.m.

click to enlarge My block after half an hour of scraping that began at 2:30 a.m. - PHOTO BY MICHAEL ROBERTS
My block after half an hour of scraping that began at 2:30 a.m.
Photo by Michael Roberts
Locals are understandably frustrated that there's been so little improvement over the span of nearly a week, as I'm sure you can understand. Deep down, we know that even sending out crews armed with flamethrowers wouldn't make much of a dent on many streets in the area. Only warmer temperatures will improve things, and while the forecast for the coming days calls for highs in the 40s, that's not enough of a boost to quickly assure dry pavement for all.

In the meantime, people like me are still trying to make our properties safe — but Mother Nature is ratcheting up the degree of difficulty. I immediately shoveled after last week's storm, but by the next morning, melting icicles hanging from the rain gutter had created an icy patch that Nathan MacKinnon would have had a tough time navigating. Since then, I've twice chipped away at this section as if highwaymen were forcing me to dig my own grave, then poured de-icer on the portions that I couldn't remove. On both occasions, though, the ice was back the next day.

Our staffers who live in Denver report equally problematic situations — with the additional challenge of looming citations from the city. Take the example of our editor. Concerned about getting cited for the inches of ice on her Denver sidewalk, she stopped at three supermarkets on Thanksgiving in search of de-icer, only to find they were out. She finally tried a 7-Eleven on South Broadway, where the clerk suggested she "do your business in a bucket and just pour the pee on the ice." She declined, and fortunately found a well-stocked Ace the next morning. Her sidewalk is clean as a whistle. Her street? Almost impassible.

And so we're encouraging city sidewalk inspectors to remain patient and understanding. Especially if they want us to offer that patience and understanding in return regarding streets that could double for Winter Olympics toboggan runs.


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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts