Council Votes Down Snow Removal Ordinance
Policy would have fined business owners for not clearing sidewalks in specified time frame
The Vienna Town Council voted against a policy Monday that would have charged local businesses with a class four misdemeanor and up to $250 in fines a day for not clearing snow from the entrances to and walkways around their properties.
The ordinance would have required commercial property owners to remove snow from sidewalks next to their property within a specific time period: within 24 hours of the snowfall stopping, or, 12 hours after "actual notice by the Town to the owner or owners, occupant or occupants of the property or premises" was given.
Business owners would have faced a class four misdemeanor and up to $250 a day in fines for failing to clear snow from around their property. For each day the snow was not cleared, a business would've incurred another violation.
At a public hearing Monday night, uncertainty about which town department would enforce the legislation and whether the town should become involved in legislating the issue — along with testimony from local business and property owners — prompted the council to vote 5-2 against it.
"My main concern about this is having an ordinance on our books that we are not in a position to effectively enforce and if we create this obligation and we have uneven enforcement of it, or it becomes something that is not effective for us to follow up on, then I think we’ve created a different type of problem that I don’t like seeing us get into," said Councilwoman Laurie Cole, who voted down the ordinance.
"I don’t think there’s a compelling need for this out there," Councilman Howard Springsteen said. "I don’t see the chamber packed with people insisting that we do this."
Councilwomen Laurie DiRocco and Carey Sienicki voted against Cole's motion.
Parks and Recreation Director Cathy Salgado said typically half of Vienna businesses and commercial property owners clear their walkways after a storm. The other half do not.
The town clears snow from public buildings, schools, bus shelters and areas used to access the metro. For the past three years, the town has sent a letter to some 1,100 property and business owners in Vienna's commercial district, asking business owners to clear the area surrounding their stores so patrons and other residents can safely pass through the area. This year, about 19 returned some sort of feedback which she said she considered a "very good low return rate."
In surrounding jurisdictions, snow removal ordinances have been effective in sending a message to local businesses about what their responsibility is, Salgado said. Leesburg, which created a snow removal ordinance for both its commercial and residential areas about five years ago, issued about 15 warnings or summonses two years ago and all complied except one "repeat offender." She didn't believe the town had to hand out warnings any this past year.
But local business owners spoke Monday night about a number of issues the ordinance would create. Among them: living out of town and not being able to asses the situation or show up to shovel, town plows that add more snow to sidewalks after they've already been cleared and the fact that economic motivation should be enough to make sure stores keep their property clean.
"I can't move snow from my property into the street, but three times in the last two years I’ve had to bring in a front end loader to move what you’ve moved from the street into my parking lot. It's beyond anything ... that can removed by hand or gas powered vehicles," said Donny Sobel, owner of the Clock Shop of Vienna on Church Street. "Somehow we have to be compatible with each other but when you’ve piled it up into my sidewalk and the access to my property, it's become impossible."
Sometimes, said George Keena, a local contractor who removes snow for several businesses along that strip, he will clear a sidewalk only to return half a day later to town plows putting more snow from the road back on the sidewalk.
"Any time we give authorities permission to fine us when we’re not even there is very dangerous," said Farhad Shariari, who owns a company in the industrial area near Dominion Drive and Ayr Hill Road but lives out of town; during the last snow storm, he was stuck in his house for three days, he said.
Shariari also said the situations differ too drastically between types of businesses and their locations for the town to make a blanket ordinance.
"You're trying to pass a law that has to be specifically designed around his business and his business and mine," he said. "There are so many exceptions ... so what's the purpose?"
Theresa Ayotte was the only resident to speak in favor of the ordinance, saying she and her family can walk easily to patronize local businesses but their normal walking route is frequently blocked with snow from commercial properties. If she has to get in her car to shop, she said, she loses motivation to keep her money in town.
Cole said people often file complaints with the town when they can't get to businesses, but those complaints should be directed toward the businesses themselves, she said. It would them to be accountable without the town having to step in.
Before the council voted against the ordinance, Town Attorney Steve Briglia suggested adding language to the policy that would allow the town manager to suspend penalties in case of extreme weather, like the 24-inch snows Vienna saw in 2010 which he said he believed most business owners had in mind when thinking about the logistic of the ordinance.
The ordinance was geared toward smaller amounts of snowfall, he said.
In voting down the policy, Cole said she was "relying on the goodwill and community spirit of our business owners to do the right thing."