October 18, 2021

Blocked curb cuts limit access

Sidewalk snow, ice a barrier to those with mobility problems

Travis Dunn/staff reporter

This curb cut adjacent to the disabled parking space outside the Cortland Post Office was not properly cleared on Monday to make the sidewalk accessible to those with mobility issues.

For the young and healthy, sidewalks covered with ice and snow are annoyances, not impassible barriers. But for people with mobility problems — the elderly and people with disabilities — improperly cleared sidewalks present a real problem. They limit access to the world.

Some Cortland residents say the city isn’t doing enough to help residents with mobility issues.

One area of concern: The parking spots for the disabled on Main Street. Each of these spots has an adjacent curb cut — or a spot on the sidewalk where the curb slopes down to the asphalt, forming a ramp wide enough for a wheelchair.

Problem is, city plow trucks heap up snow in these spots and their nearby curb cuts, which are then either not shoveled out by property owners or only partially shoveled out.

Monday, for instance, before Tuesday’s snow melt, the curb cut at the disability parking space at the Cortland Post Office was partially cleared, but not the full width of the curb cut.

This barrier upsets resident Chris Mott, whose wife uses a wheelchair. Blocked or partially cleared curb cuts on Main Street, he said, prevents them from patronizing downtown businesses.

If city officials were serious about promoting downtown businesses, they would work to improve winter-time sidewalk accessibility, he said, a point he has made to the city over the years.

“I think some of the downtown business owners have to take responsibility in making sure that the curb cuts are maintained,” he said.

Property owners are responsible for clearing curb cuts, said fire department Capt. Michael TenKate, interim director of the city’s code enforcement office. He acknowledged, however, that city trucks can plow over curb cuts that a property owner has recently cleared. In that case, code officers “are certainly understanding of that,” he said.

The property owner still is responsible, “but we have to give them time to clear it,” TenKate said.

Mott said the city could minimize problems with curb cuts by changing how it plows downtown. Instead of plowing in the direction of one-way traffic, he’d like the city trucks to plow in the opposite direction, so the snow piles up in ordinary parking spots, not the disability-accessible ones.

But Nic Dovi, the city’s deputy superintendent of public works, said plowing the wrong way on a one-way street would be dangerous, even very early in the morning.

“I think that would probably be a safety issue,” he said.

Curbs cuts are the responsibility of property owners, and the one in front of the post office would be the post office’s responsibility, he said, although city workers do clear snow from curbs if they have time.

Cortland Postmaster Kristie Beam said post office employees routinely clear the curb cut and shovel walking paths to parking spots.

Mott, however, is not satisfied. The area of Main Street that Mott has pointed to, a yard-wide stretch of brick curb between the sidewalk and the street, has been an area of contention for years.

Aaron Baier, executive director of Access for Independence of Cortland County, said city officials and downtown business owners need a new approach to solve the problem.

“It really is disappointing that we have accessible spaces, and we have the curb cuts available, and it is really the legal responsibility for the city and for business owners to make sure that snow removal gets done,” Baier said. He is less concerned who is legally responsible for clearing these paths.

Baier said he’s “the type of homeowner who would just take the extra five minutes to go the extra three or five feet” to clear an area of sidewalk between properties, where legal shoveling responsibility is unclear. He thinks the city and business owners need to adopt a similar attitude.

“Just go the extra five feet and clear the snow,” he said. “It’s only good for the city, and it’s good for business.”

Baier, who is legally blind and walks with a cane, said he often encounters areas of obstructed city sidewalk, which forces him to walk in the road.

Two areas of Main Street can present such obstructions: at Clayton Avenue on the post office side and at West Court Street on the Brix Puberia side, where water tends to pool, making sidewalk access problematic. Mayor Brian Tobin said a solution is coming — the rebuilding of Main Street as part of the Downtown Revitalization Initiative. “Yes, we know it’s a problem,” he said. “Yes, we’re addressing it, but it will probably take two years.”

Regarding other sidewalk clearance complaints, including the clearance of curb cuts, Tobin said city officials and the Cortland Downtown Partnership have had many discussions over the years about the issue.

“And there has not been a good solution that has come forward,” he said.

According to Tobin, the city hasn’t stepped in and cleared the Main Street sidewalks for several reasons:

One: Why should Main Street be treated differently from other city streets?

Two: If the city did decide to treat Main Street differently, where does “Main Street” start and where does it stop?

Three: DPW workers would have to take time from other duties to clear the sidewalk.

Four: The areas of concern are the responsibility of property owners, not the city.

Tobin said he thinks the problem would best be solved by downtown business owners.

“I think the best solution is that the property owners on Main Street should be having a conversation,” he said. “They could hire somebody that could do this and do it cheaply and do it efficiently.”