The Anne Arundel County Public Schools (AACPS) Facebook page has, in the last year, become the standard battleground during every weather event between teachers and staff, who want schools to close and parents, who are pushing to keep them open. Although tempers frequently flare and civility is the first casualty in the battle, some valid points on both sides of the perpetual argument can be gleaned. But there is one issue, in particular that has been a problem for a long time and is a serious safety threat, not only to students, but to residents of the city and county, as well. And that is sidewalks that are left unshoveled by businesses and residents after a storm.
City and county law clearly states that businesses and residents who own property adjacent to sidewalks in the right-of-way are responsible for keeping them clear of snow and ice. But in reality, a large proportion of businesses do not do so, and the fines, even if they were to be levied, are laughably insignificant–hardly a motivating factor to keeping their sidewalk clear. The city and county do not enforce a weak law and, as a result, sidewalks are left in a critically unsafe condition for days or, sometimes, weeks at a time.
Take Forest Drive, for example, which is the most heavily-trafficked traffic corridor in the city. As of last Friday, six days after the blizzard, between half and three-quarters of the sidewalks on either side are buried under at least a foot of uneven snow and ice which, despite the warmer temperatures, will not be melting any time soon. The businesses on either side of Annapolis Middle School have not shoveled their sidewalks, nor have those across the street. The assisted living facility across from Hillsmere Elementary has not shoveled their sidewalks although, to be fair, the county has not shoveled the sidewalks adjacent to PAL Park, which is across from the school. Eastport Elementary is surrounded by businesses who have not shoveled their sidewalks. A parochial school and church, mid-corridor, has not shoveled their sidewalks. You cannot watch the kids from Robinwood or mothers with small kids, carrying bags of groceries, while stumbling over uneven mountains of snow without getting angry at a broken system.
The blizzard dropped between fourteen and nineteen inches on Annapolis by Saturday night. Forest Drive was completely plowed, curb-to-curb by Tuesday afternoon. So, assuming that businesses would argue that cleared sidewalks would be covered over again by plows, that would still give them almost three days to clear their sidewalks before schools were scheduled to restart on Friday. That didn’t happen. Almost a week later, those sidewalks are not cleared and probably will not be until the snow melts. Amongst debate, AACPS closed schools on Friday, despite the vast majority of roads in the county having been cleared. Since AACPS is not specific as to why they make these decisions and speak only in vague terms, we have to make some assumptions. So assuming that the comments on the AACPS page have some grain of truth (although there are some significant exaggerations on both sides as to conditions) the most-frequently cited argument was that sidewalks were not cleared. And that was true. Businesses, property management companies, residents, and even the County and City, failed to shovel sidewalks which left them in miserable condition. And this is the norm every storm.
Marylanders, in general, are not known for their ability to handle snow. In fact, schools and city government are shut down for minor dustings. That probably won’t change. We are not a snow people. But the sidewalk situation is serious for a couple of reasons. First and foremost, it is a safety issue. But, and this may make people squirm, it is not taken seriously because a disproportionate number of school walkers in Annapolis are from public housing or Latino neighborhoods, and those areas don’t tend to be priorities. But, in a leap of logic, one could argue that if it weren’t for businesses not shoveling their sidewalks, we would not have to use as many snow days. In fact, you could argue that two of the last three snow days used were because sidewalks were unshoveled, because the county did an extraordinary job, for the most part, in clearing the streets. So the cancellations were, in large part, because of sidewalks. And now the genie is out of the bottle when it comes to making decisions as to closing schools. The new litmus test as to whether schools are opened or closed will come down to sidewalks. And if the businesses continue to ignore the law, we will continue to burn snow days.
It is the responsibility of the city and the county to make sure that sidewalks are clear. Period. That’s not to say that they have to do it, but they DO have to make sure it is done by enforcing the law. They do this all the time already; the Health Department, for example, ensures, through inspections, that food purveyors follow the law to ensure the safety of the taxpayers. Why can this not be done when it comes to sidewalks? Aggressively patrol after a snowfall to ensure that businesses and residents are following the law. Increase the fine. Significantly. A $25 fine is not an incentive to clean up. How about $500? A child being killed after sliding off a snow pile while walking to Annapolis Middle School is certainly worth more than twenty-five bucks. If we were as enthusiastic about monitoring the safety of children as we are scrutinizing the materials used in rebuilding porches in historic downtown, our kids might be a little safer after a snowfall.