Lackluster winter still tested new snow ordinance
A largely snowless winter provided the first test of Rochester's new administrative-penalty procedure for property owners who failed to shovel their sidewalks.
As of last week, these were the numbers reported by the city's Public Works Department: 207 complaints received, and 144 sidewalk locations cleared by the city's hired contractor.
"I think it was a good winter to practice this, because we had only two (snow) events," said Michael Scharenbroich, of Public Works.
The penalty was a $40 fine, plus costs for the contractor, Kobal's Poured Walls Inc., of rural Rochester, to clear and sand sidewalks. The cost varied based on sidewalk frontage, but the fine plus costs totaled more than $100 in most cases.
One person appealed his fine — and won. Nick Dibble, of northwest Rochester, raised constitutional issues with the city ordinance, which refers to "all snow (and) ice" on the sidewalks as a being a potential trigger for enforcement.
"The problem is the ordinance is too vague," Dibble said. "There's no clear standard by which a reasonable person can abide."
Dibble's appeal, though successful, was a Pyrrhic victory. Though he got his $40 fine waived, now he's on the hook for a $50 hearing charge. He also still has to pay the $68 charge due to the contractor.
Dibble said he left the hearing unaware he was still subject to the $68 charge.
"Then I definitely will appeal it (the charge) to district court," he said. And Dibble said he will plan to run for city council in the fall, depending which district his home lies in after redistricting.
"I would say a city council run is a safe bet at this point," he said.
City council member Randy Staver — whose Ward 5 territory currently includes Dibble's residence — said he would favor "taking a look at the nuances of the policy," perhaps setting a snow-accumulation standard that would trigger enforcement.
The trouble with setting such a standard, as the city council has discussed in the past, is that an inch of snow may be less of a sidewalk hazard than a glaze of ice. The council agreed months ago to let the standard be: If somebody finds it necessary to complain, it's worth checking out as a possible problem.
Staver said he heard only "a handful" of complaints about the fine program — "fewer than half a dozen."
And fellow council member Michael Wojcik, a vocal supporter of the penalty procedure, said he feels a silent majority of citizens actually approved of it.
"In general, our sidewalks were never so clean," he said. "Clearly more people were glad … than were not."
In Dibble's case, the snowfall that triggered the complaint fell before Feb. 15. By Feb. 16, when he received notice of the fine in his mailbox, it had all melted.
"I turned around seconds later and took these pictures," he said, showing photographs of a brown, snowless lawn and clear sidewalks.
Scharenbroich said that in Dibble's case, neighbors on either side had shoveled their sidewalks, lending credence to the complaint. The contractor had to use an ice chipper to get to the sidewalk pavement, and, based on time signatures on digital photos documenting the action, it took about eight to 10 minutes to do the job.
"We're not in it to punish people," Scharenbroich said. "At the same time, we have to be responsive to complaints, and make a safe environment for people in the winter."
The morning of Feb. 15, Dibble said, he had pushed his 3-year-old son's wheelchair along the sidewalk to his minivan and didn't think twice about needing to shovel it.
"I think I'm pretty capable of determining what is a public nuisance or not," he said. "If I believed I was really in the wrong, I'd pay, no problem."
Does case have a precedent?
Dibble said he's basing his case on a 1990 state Appeals Court ruling that invalidated an Edina resident's city fine for noise from a barking dog. There, the city standard referred generally to "noise that disturbs the peace and quiet of persons in the vicinity" but did not include an objective standard, such a decibel levels.
His objection to Rochester's snow standard follows the same line of reasoning, Dibble said.
"The problem is, as a citizen, it doesn't give us any sort of notice or due process," he said. "We have to keep our sidewalks clear, but we can't take power away from the citizen just to make the government's job easier."
The interactions between Dibble and the city have had a friendly, almost collegial tone — in fact, both Dibble and Scharenbroich spoke kindly of each other during their interviews.
"He presented himself very well, and was very well organized — very civil and cordial," Scharenbroich said of Dibble.
Whether the ordinance changes or stays the same, the city needs to give residents a heads-up about shoveling expectations before next winter, Scharenbroich said.
"By next winter, we'll try to publicize this more, as a reminder," he said. "The ordinance has been there a long time. This is a new way of enforcement. But we've always responded to complaints."
"Imagine the winter last year, how many (complaints) we would have gotten," he said.