Communities struggle to get sidewalks cleared

Communities struggle to get sidewalks cleared

Rhode Island communities continue to struggle with the idea of getting sidewalks adequately cleared after storms. Victor Rodriquez, of Providence, pictured a year ago, uses a snowblower to clear a sidewalk along Mineral Spring Avenue in North Providence. (Breeze photo by Charles Lawrence)

Northern Rhode Island communities remain largely unfriendly to pedestrians after snowstorms, a safety issue brought on by inconsistent clearing and enforcement efforts, and officials are most often declining to fill in the gaps with municipal crews.

Officials in several cities and towns remain reluctant to issue tickets for failure to clear sidewalks, despite the presence of ordinances requiring such work to be done by abutting property owners within certain timeframes, and they’ve also not been enthusiastic about buying sidewalk plows and doing the work as a municipal service.

North Providence Mayor Charles Lombardi said the town continually visits businesses along main thoroughfares to remind them to clear sidewalks, but said compliance remains spotty at best.

The town remains reluctant to issue fines of $25 based on the struggles of businesses, especially in a pandemic, he said.

Lombardi said he would consider the idea of buying a sidewalk plow for busy areas. The town maintains extra focus on getting sidewalks cleared in areas around schools, he told The Breeze, and while those will continue to be a priority, with more students being bused and driven to school, “that alleviates part of the emergency.”

Lombardi said communities with more students walking to school along busy roadways, like neighboring Pawtucket, have a more urgent need for clear sidewalks.

In Cumberland, fines of $25 for a first violation and $50 for a second or subsequent violation are reserved for those who deposit snow and ice back into the road when clearing driveways. Efforts to move toward an ordinance on sidewalk clearing were revived two years ago, but subsequently stalled.

Mayor Jeff Mutter said this week that he had a vendor come in and demonstrate some equipment a while back, as the town needs to find something smaller to address sidewalks around Town Hall in Valley Falls. He said he plans to go out to bid soon to actively pursue new equipment, and thinks the town has the flexibility to be able to roll equipment up and down dense areas such as Broad Street, as well as near schools, after a storm.

Mutter said it’s simply not practical for some people living along Broad Street to be expected to clear their entire sidewalk after a plow comes through and dumps heavy snow. He said his feeling is that people should participate as much as they can in this effort, but like everything else, the town should also be jumping in to clear key areas.

“I think a municipality has to participate as well, and that’s where we’re headed,” he said.

Town Councilor Bob Shaw said he still feels an ordinance is necessary, recalling meetings from 2018 where officials ended up localizing their efforts around school areas before other issues sort of drowned out the effort. Shaw said he now has a four-year term ahead and plans to prioritize a sidewalk ordinance. With Broad Street being redone and allowing machines to pass in the future, the area around Garvin Elementary and McCourt Middle School will become an issue, he said, and he plans to meet with the mayor to talk about potential solutions.

Wilder Arboleda, spokesman for Pawtucket Mayor Donald Grebien, said the city prioritizes roads and city-owned sidewalks during and after snowstorms. Sidewalks are cleared within the guidelines of the existing ordinance, he said, with abutting property owners responsible for clearing sidewalks after a storm.

“Just like anything else, the city balances all of its equipment needs with the need to be fiscally responsible,” he said. “Sidewalks are covered through a strong Department of Public Works snow operation and are cleared with a bobcat, snow blower, and shovels as needed.”

Asked for clarification, he said the Bobcat would only be used at city-owned properties, while school staff take care of sidewalks near schools.

In Woonsocket, Public Works Director Steve D’Agostino says the city owns two Bobcats with snow-throwers and they’ll go out after a storm to clear sidewalks in some high-traffic areas, but they don’t do all the sidewalks and they prioritize plowing the streets. Some of the areas where they’ll clear sidewalks include Main Street, Cass Avenue, Social Street, Clinton Street, South Main Street and parts of Bernon Street.

“As part of our ordinance, each business and resident, it’s their responsibility to clear their section of sidewalk,” he said. “We’re not clearing 600 streets of sidewalks. That’s not happening. It’s never happened before, and it’s not happening now.”

He said the city didn’t use to clear the high-traffic areas, but now they go out after the storm once the plowing is done and they clear about three miles of sidewalk.

“It would be impossible to do the entire city. It would take you two weeks after the storm, and that’s if it doesn’t snow again,” he said.

D’Agostino said there’s not a city in the country that clears all sidewalks.

“We live in an age now where everyone wants everything done,” he said. “They don’t want to do anything. When I was growing up, you went outside and cleared your sidewalk after the storm. That’s how it was done. Now everyone wants to just sit at home and play with their iPhones or their iPads and expect city services.”

Woonsocket resident David Silvia, in a letter to the editor last month, said the familiar complaint about uncleared sidewalks, voiced again after last month’s storm, largely falls on deaf ears.

“Nobody enforces the law to clean sidewalks after a storm, which leaves handicapped people, mothers pushing baby carriages to be stuck in the snow,” he said. “Last year when these complaints were addressed, the city public highway director claims he does not have enough personnel to clean the sidewalks. A suggestion to have a volunteer shoveling group be formed, and yet has not materialized.”

Perhaps when a major lawsuit comes in after someone is forced into the street and struck, the city will take notice, said Silvia.

Back in 2016, Smithfield town leaders rejected the idea of a new ordinance requiring that property owners clear abutting sidewalks, saying there were too many questions.

Other less populated communities, such as Lincoln, have ordinances on the books but enforcement never happens.

Town Administrator Joe Almond said this week that Lincoln has never used enforcement, but instead opts for requests to property owners. Because the town is more suburban/rural, there can be a half-mile of sidewalks in an area with two houses, he said.

This issue is debated in every community, said Almond, with enforcement often seen as a double-edged sword. If they do force a resident to clear the sidewalk, what happens if that resident then has a heart attack, he said.