BELFAST, Maine — With winter on the horizon the city is once again trying to resolve the annual difficulty of keeping downtown sidewalks free of snow.
Snow removal on the downtown streets has been hit or miss over the years. After some storms the sidewalks are swept clean, while on other occasions portions of the walk in front of some businesses remain untouched.
The City Council has wrestled with the problem for years and is expected to take up the matter when it meets next week.
Although the city owns the sidewalks in the downtown business district, an ordinance on the books requires building owners to remove snow and ice from in front of their buildings.
“There is an ordinance in place and they have to get rid of their snow, that’s all there is to it,” Mayor Walter Ash said Friday. “It was always a known fact that people took care of their own snow. It can’t be like a checkerboard down there. It’s part of doing business. I would think people would want to do it. I know I have to get rid of mine.”
In addition to the local ordinance, state law also gives the city the authority to require abutting property owners to clean their walks. The sidewalks are public ways and state statutes authorize the city to require building owners to keep the walkways free of snow, City Manager Joseph Slocum noted in his most recent manager’s report to the council.
Slocum stated that the largest number of complaints the city receives on the issue is from owners of downtown businesses. Those who comply with the ordinance point to others who do not, he said. He said the problem is exacerbated because some downtown buildings have pitched roofs that directly dump snow and ice onto the sidewalks.
Slocum said that last year the council authorized the city to enforce its ordinance by hiring a private contractor to clear the sidewalk and then billing the property owner. Under that policy the city agreed that owners of downtown buildings who failed to clear their walks by 11 a.m. the day after a storm would be charged for the removal.
When a storm hits, the entire Public Works crew is mobilized. The city clears about 100 miles of roadways and work is divided into seven routes, including the airport and its runways. While a grader is used to sweep the downtown streets, the department also has one person hand-shoveling most of the street corners and cross-walks. When the storm ends, the crew is sent home.
“The point here is that when the storm is over, everyone goes home,” Slocum said. “We do not have the people to clean all of the sidewalks in the downtown area. When the crew comes in the next day they largely go to work digging up and hauling off all the snow they have plowed aside in the downtown area.”
Slocum said the city plans to make enhanced efforts to inspect the downtown streets after each storm, hire private contractors to do the snow removal not done by the owner, and bill them for the work. Unpaid bills will be pursued for collection and could lead to possible liens being placed on the property, he said.
“The city does not enjoy forcing owners of buildings to comply with their legal obligations,” Slocum informed the council. “Several downtown businesses have suggested from time to time that perhaps the city should just clean all of these walks itself. I remind you that we have not budgeted for this and do not have the staff to take on all this responsibility.”