Property owners might actually face enforceable fines for not shoveling their snow in the winter one year from now. Councilmember Mary Cheh was able to win over some nervous colleagues and won passage of a bill after amending it to give small residential property owners lighter fines and exempt seniors and people with disabilities.

Photo by David Alpert.

The DC Council gave its first-reading  final approval to the bill today. The law already requires property owners to shovel snow within eight hours of the end of a snowfall, but the District was not able to enforce that since it had to prosecute anyone who didn’t do that. The bill authorizes a regular fine for property owners who don’t clear snow.

Some councilmembers worried that forcing seniors to shovel would put a difficult burden on them, and that fines could disproportionately hurt poor homeowners who can’t easily afford to pay. I’d previously argued that it made sense to focus efforts on the real bad actors, like the large condo buildings on corners or full-block parking lots.

The new version of the bill, with Cheh’s modifications, sets up stricter rules for “commercial” property owners than “residential” ones. “Commercial” owners would face a fine of $125 for the first offense, $250 for the second, and $500 after that. “Residential” owners can get at most a $25 fine, whether for the first or tenth infraction.

Also, “residential” property owners have to get a warning first, and then can only be ticketed if the sidewalk is still not clear 24 hours later. In almost all cases, this means that “residential” property owners won’t get any tickets, though the warning would likely spur action, so the bill still could have a positive effect. “Residential” property owners who are 65 or or older or have disabilities also are exempt.

Fortunately, this doesn’t let the 50-unit condo building off the hook. There’s an important reason “residential” and “commercial” terms were in quotation marks above: Under DC laws, a building with more than three dwelling units is technically a “commercial” building even though people reside in it. A 4-unit condo, for instance, doesn’t get city trash pickup, but instead contracts with a private hauling company. That’s because DPW residential trash collection only applies to “residential” buildings.

Cheh’s staff confirmed that the same definitions should apply here.

Of course, this doesn’t do anything about sidewalks next to land controlled by the National Park Service, embassies, or some other big offenders. For its part, the DC government has been better in recent years about clearing bridges and sidewalks next to schools and city parks, but can still do better as well.

Muriel Bower, Marion Barry, and Jim Graham voted against the bill. Anita Bonds and Yvette Alexander also expressed concerns about the impact on seniors, but got on board after an amendment by David Catania to make it easier for them to get the exemption. Nobody will get a fine until October of 2015, and in the meantime, Bowser’s administration will have to write rules implementing the law.

David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Sustainable Transportation (DCST). He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. Unless otherwise noted, opinions in his GGWash posts are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.