Column: If property owners won’t clear sidewalks, raise the fines

03/06/2016 6:00 AM |

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Last winter, a frequent Riverhead visitor emailed me several times to report that sidewalks on Route 58 had not been shoveled — as is mandated under town code — leaving people walking up and down the busy roadway.

After I followed up with the town, 40 businesses were cited. Most of them paid their $250 fines and life went on.

Fast-forward a year. Luckily, we haven’t had nearly as much snow this winter. In fact, I feel almost silly writing this column; it’s hard to think of the past few months as winter at all.

Nonetheless, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

All it took was one quick snowstorm in late January for me to get that email again.

“Are property owners on [Route] 58 not above the law?” a concerned resident wrote to the Town Board, and to me.

A short list of Route 58 properties that did shovel their sidewalks followed. All six of them.

Apparently none of the other property owners had been cited. Not a bad question.

I sat on the story. In fairness, I thought, the town should probably get a day or so to actually write any tickets. Plus, with the swings in temperature, I figured the snow would be gone in a day or two. And it was.

About two weeks later came another snowstorm. As someone who occasionally takes public transit — though I try to avoid it when conditions aren’t ideal — I could see that, this time, plenty of sidewalks were still snow-covered days later. And days after snow falls, it’s no longer really “snow.” It’s more of a crushed-down, uneven kind of ice — the kind that isn’t safe anywhere — and people are forced to walk either on that unsafe surface or in busy roadways.

As expected, another email soon followed. More photos of snowy sidewalks came along with it.

As it turns out, the town hadn’t issued a single ticket to a single business — or residence — for not shoveling sidewalks until Feb. 12, about two weeks after this season’s first heavy snowfall.

The town’s understaffed code enforcement department — which has two full-time employees and one part time — took one swing up Route 58 that day, handing out 35 tickets in the span of a few hours, mostly to a variety of out-of-town LLCs. One of them is in Honolulu. No snow to worry about there.

As a matter of fact, only five of the property owners ticketed are actually located in Riverhead.

But while the responsibility of keeping sidewalks clear lies with property owners in Riverhead, it’s actually up to the town to make sure people comply. And that apparently requires more effort than writing one round of tickets and calling it a day.

If the last two years are any indication, the fines aren’t much cause for concern among Route 58 property owners. What’s $250? Certainly not worth the time or money it costs to find someone to clear a sidewalk. But in the interest of keeping those who use the sidewalks safe (and yes, I’ll admit I’m one of them) it’s up to the town to make the fines significant enough to attract the scofflaws’ attention. Each violation is $250, but why shouldn’t the town punish repeat offenders to a higher degree?

And why isn’t the town sending its enforcement department back and back again, day after day, until the sidewalks are cleared? The town sends out “warning letters” before writing any tickets to try and get compliance. Fair enough, I suppose. But if compliance is the end goal, firm enforcement should follow that warning. And follow again, until property owners comply.

When people are walking down Route 58 in the middle of winter because of snow-covered sidewalks — or are hailing taxis instead — it’s time for the town penalize those who don’t follow the code.

But the fact that several dozen companies have been ignoring the code for (at least) the past two years, means the Town Board has its own work to do first: Raise the fines so companies will be motivated to avoid them by doing the right thing in the first place.

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