December 1, 2021

Cortland homeowners are required to clear sidewalks of snow

Slidewalk season

Todd R. McAdam/managing editor

A Port Watson sidewalk from a Dec. 2019 file photo

For Cortland property owners, shoveling the sidewalk is not voluntary; it’s a legal responsibility. Renters, you’re off the hook. But your landlord isn’t.

City code requires that property owners clear their sidewalks for the full width and length of the property. The sidewalk must also be cleared down to the surface.

That can be an issue, particularly for Sandra Ferman of Cortland, who was trying to make her way along an icy sidewalk on Port Watson Street on Thursday.

“It’s awful,” she said. She uses a cane, and sometimes the arm of a companion. Many seniors walk between a drug store on the corner and senior housing down the street, she said.

Using salt on a sidewalk isn’t required, “but we highly recommend it, especially on a hill,” said Capt. Michael TenKate, interim director of the city’s code enforcement office.

Time is also a consideration: City code stipulates that following snowfall, sidewalks must be cleared by 6 p.m. the following day. During continuous snowfall, sidewalks must be cleared at least once every 24 hours.

Clearing sidewalks of snow and ice is especially important for city residents with mobility problems, according to Rachel Anderson, accessibility modification coordinator for Access to Independence.

“This tends to be something that we need to remind people of every single year,” she said.

Anderson recommends that property owners keep their sidewalks clear and consider offering to clear the sidewalks of neighbors who are elderly or have mobility issues, as well as parents who are home alone with small children. She also suggests “checking on your neighbors and being neighborly.”

Most property owners take care of their sidewalks, but not all do.

“The first snow of the year is a challenge,” TenKate said. Every year the city has problems with sidewalk snow removal, but most of the problems crop up early on. “It gets better, and we get better at knowing which ones are just not going to deal with stuff.”

The city fielded 317 complaints on snow removal over the past year, TenKate said. Most of those complaints were resolved with a phone call.

That’s the city’s first method of getting a property owner to clean a snow- or ice-covered sidewalk. But it doesn’t always work.

If the neighborly approach doesn’t work, then the punitive approach kicks in. First and second offenses in a 24-month period: $25. Third offense: $75. Fourth: $125. Any offense after that in 24 months: $250.

That’s not all. The city also sends a contractor to do the job, then bills the property owner for the work, with a $25 administrative fee.

“We give them at least 24 hours,” TenKate said. “We try to reasonable. We try to work with people. We’re not trying to be Big Brother about it, but we realize that it’s a safety issue and a quality of life issue for our residents.

“We’re definitely not out to get Mrs. Smith who forgot to shovel her sidewalk once.”
Vacant buildings and so-called “zombie” houses are a recurrent problem, he said.

“We just do them,” he said.

The city also bills the delinquent owners, who typically don’t pay the bills. Those unpaid bills then get added to the unpaid property taxes. Either the taxes get paid, or the city eventually sells the property at auction.

“In the end, the city gets paid,” TenKate said.

Villages rules vary

Several villages in the greater Cortland area have their own way of handling winter sidewalk clearance:

  • Homer — The village started snow removal in 2018 for its sidewalks, including residents. However, residents are still responsible for snow removal if the village is unable to get to them. Department of Public Works Supervisor Mike Harter had said sidewalks that students primarily walk on take priority.
  • Dryden — The village requires property owners to clear their sidewalks within 24 hours after a storm. But in practice, said Debra Marrotte, the village’s clerk-treasurer, the village’s public works department clears many.
  • Marathon — The Marathon Department of Public Works handles snow removal for all village sidewalks, said Mayor William McGovern. He said the village didn’t start off doing that but over the years it has grown to the village taking it over, although under the law residents are actually responsible for their own sidewalks.
  • Groton — The Village of Groton has policies similar to Cortland; property owners must clear their own sidewalks, said village Clerk-Treasurer Nancy Niswender. But the deadline is stricter: Sidewalks must be cleared by 10 a.m. after a snowstorm. Property owners who don’t comply will be warned in their monthly electric bill, she said. Then the Department of Public Works will do the job and bill the property owner.
    — S.N. Briere and Travis Dunn