Minimize Fines, Reduce Liability with Smart Snow Removal Policy
Winter weather creates hazardous conditions that can be extremely dangerous for both drivers and pedestrians. And while there are city agencies responsible for monitoring and dealing with the side effects of freezing temperatures and winter storms on public roadways, taking care of slippery sidewalks is a responsibility that falls directly upon building owners.
The Office of Sidewalk Management, the City Charter, and the New York City Administrative Code categorize city sidewalks into three major groups: city-owned property; one-, two-, and three-family owner-occupied properties; and “four-plus,” which includes all multifamily buildings and commercial properties.
Until 2002, the city was responsible for the maintenance and repair of sidewalks. However, since the law change went into effect, the Department of Transportation now focuses its maintenance efforts on sidewalks abutting city property, as well as one-, two-, and three-family owner-occupied properties throughout the five boroughs. For buildings categorized as “four-plus,” Section 16-123 of the city's Administrative Code requires you to maintain and repair all sidewalks abutting your property. This includes the removal of snow and ice from the sidewalk in front of your building.
To avoid fines for snow and ice on your sidewalk this winter, be sure to adapt your snow removal policy to the following guidelines. Failure to comply with the law may result in fines ranging from $100 to $350.
Shovel Snow on Time
When you must shovel depends on when the snow stops falling. When snow stops anytime from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m., you must clear your sidewalk within four hours after the snow stops falling. If the snow stops anytime after 9 p.m. but before 7 a.m, you have until 11 a.m. to get the sidewalks cleared.
Clear a Thorough Pathway
The law sets no guidelines on how much snow to shovel. You don't have to shovel the entire sidewalk. Clearing a path on your sidewalk for pedestrians is enough. The cleared path should be at least wide enough to be a “passable lane,” which generally translates into a path about 4 feet wide.
Another reason to make the path wide enough and to clear the sidewalk down to the concrete is to prevent ice from forming. A narrow footpath is likely to melt during the day, then freeze over during the colder nighttime hours, then melt and refreeze again into a rock-hard coating of ice.
In one ruling, an administrative law judge (ALJ) found that the owner had left snow and ice on the sidewalk for two days. The inspector issued the violation at 7 a.m. and stated that a snowstorm had ended two days prior, at 10 a.m. The inspector stated at a hearing that he saw no attempt to remove the snow or ice.
The owner testified that he had applied snow-melt to the snow and ice within four hours after the storm ended, but waited an additional 23 hours from the snow-melt application to remove the snow and ice from the sidewalk. The ALJ ruled against the owner, interpreting the law as requiring that the snow and ice be removed within a reasonable time. The ALJ found that the owner didn't remove the snow and ice within a reasonable time and fined him $100. The owner appealed, and submitted photographs showing that he had shoveled a pathway through the snow.
The Environmental Control Board (ECB) ruled against the owner. N.Y.C. Administrative Code Section 16-123 requires an owner to thoroughly clear snow and ice from the sidewalk. The pathway the owner cleared wasn't sufficient [Green, October 2007].
Don't Ignore Hard-to-Remove Ice
You're not off the hook if ice on the sidewalk is frozen so hard that you can't remove it with a shovel. The law says that you must put down “ashes, sand, sawdust or some similar suitable material.” And you must thoroughly remove the ice as soon as the weather permits.
Hard-to-remove ice was no excuse for one owner, who got hit with a Department of Sanitation (DOS) violation for not removing ice from the sidewalk in front of his building. The owner was fined $50 and appealed. He claimed that the extremely cold weather on the date the violation was issued made it impossible to keep the sidewalk clear, since ice kept forming. But the ECB said the owner had to pay the fine. If he couldn't shovel away the ice, he should have applied ashes, sand, sawdust, or other material to the area [City of New York v. Nyasco Realty, August 1994].
If chemicals and sand are not readily available, owners can use cat litter as a “similar suitable material.” In one case, an owner used cat litter instead of sand on an icy sidewalk. The DOS had issued a violation notice for failing to remove snow and ice. The owner claimed that her son tried to remove the snow, but it was already frozen to the ground and couldn't be removed without damage to the pavement. So he spread clean, unused cat litter over the sidewalk so people wouldn't slip and fall. The ALJ ruled against the owner and fined her $100.
The owner appealed and won. On appeal, the owner submitted a printout from the Weather Channel's Web site showing that the high temperature on the morning in question was 32 degrees. This supported her claim that the ice and snow were frozen to the ground. If unable to remove the snow and ice, the owner was required by law to spread ashes, sand, sawdust, or “some similar suitable material” on the ground until weather permitted thorough cleaning. In this instance, the owner showed that the DOS Web site indicated that cat litter could be used [Rillotta, October 2009].
Don't Put Snow into Street After Plows Come Through
Be careful about where you put the shoveled snow. As you clear your sidewalk, you must not throw snow into the street. This is against the law, and it forces the DOS to re-plow your street. If you move the snow into the street after the street has been cleared, you could be fined for interfering with DOS operations.
Once the street has been cleared, it's best to shovel the snow against your building or to the sidewalk curb. If you own a corner building, shovel the snow against the building so it doesn't block the corner walkway. Also, you should never cover fire hydrants with snow—this could interfere with firefighting efforts.
In addition, the fact that a snowplow may have pushed snow onto the sidewalk in front of your building is no excuse to ignore it. In one instance, an owner claimed that city snowplows dumped snow where a path had been cut and that constant dumping of snow on the sidewalk covered the salt and sand that had been placed there. The ALJ ruled against the owner, and when he appealed, the ECB again ruled against him. The owner didn't show that any efforts had been made during the three days after it stopped snowing to clear the sidewalk or push back the snow [City of New York v. Schumsky, October 1994].
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