$idewalks: Whose Responsibility?
|Despite appearances December 1991 wasn’t the turning point|
for the sidewalk snow clearing controversy. What happened?
© 2015 Luke T. Bush
PLATTSBURGH CITY, NY – Tues., 03/10/15
Way back in 1991 the issue seemed to be settled. The New York State Attorney General issued his opinion: Plattsburgh City couldn’t force a homeowner to clear snow from sidewalks adjacent to his property. The city had to shoulder the responsibility.
In a Press-Republican article dated 12/26/91, “City can’t enforce sidewalk law,” the city mayor at the time, Clyde Rabideau, remarked: ““We must now focus our attention on how the city can do it and not on how the property owners could do it.” He talked about buying the needed equipment and the cost.
At that time one incident motivated the city to take action. The article mentioned that an elderly woman slipped and fell on a sidewalk, laying there for over half-an-hour in the cold before someone came to her aid.
Here we are in 2015. The same ordinance is in effect. Plattsburgh City only clears 7.5 miles of sidewalk while the rest – 55 miles – is on homeowners as before. Sidewalk stretches remain unshoveled, a trap for another elderly woman.
So why no change?
I spoke with advocate Debra Buell, coordinator of the Sidewalks Safety Community Forum held at Plattsburgh State, during the mid-forum break. She explained that a legal opinion by itself doesn’t mean action will be taken.
"When a state or national Attorney General issues opinions,” she said, “they're really important pieces of the jurisprudence process because they allow some guidance basically for courts, judges, lawyers, and researchers in the pursuit of a liability suit."
"What has to happen,” she continued, “for the opinion to expand into a real life enactment with enforcement is that you have to have strong court case precedence. There has to be a pretty significant amount of it or one incredible case."
|Advocate Debra Buell shares her thoughts at the Sidewalks Safety Community Forum.|
An example of an incredible case occurred in San Francisco: an independent living center joining with a group of activists who didn't like the condition of their streets. Not enough sidewalks, not enough crossing guards, not a walkable city.
The center and the activists brought a case to the city involving the right of way. The legal action was one of the biggest cases involving sidewalks, Debra said. The multi-million dollar lawsuit settlement spurred California to really work on Complete Streets, the concept of equal access for all citizens. The California Attorney General had issued an opinion similar to the one made by the NYS AG back in 1991, an opinion that probably factored into the case.
While not a lawyer – Debra is a researcher/advocate – she says another problem with the legal system is what she calls “word games,” or what a legal student would call “word specificity.” Arguments over legal definitions.
(An example that pops into my mind: President Bill Clinton and his famous response before a grand jury, "It depends on what the meaning of the word 'is' is.")
Beyond the problem with legal semantics citizens also have to be proactive, pushing for change. Since the city’s snow removal system is complaint driven people have to report any problems to the Building Inspector’s Office.
"If you had 50, 60, 70 complaints in a particular area,” Debra said, “…that's going to get a lot more weight than something that happens for the first time."
Unless there’s a legal decision that establishes complete responsibility to the city the ordinance will remain in effect.
Keep those shovels handy.