Snow-covered sidewalks plague region

Some codes are harder to enforce than others, but snow removal is one of the worst.

Altoona Code Enforcement Supervisor Kathy Westley said it’s more of a problem this year because past winters have been milder.

The office fielded 75 to 80 complaints in January, and February is looking to produce the same.

“I’ve worked here for 19 years, and it’s a continuous battle.”

City code requires residents or property owners to clear an 18-inch sidewalk path within 24 hours after snow, sleet or ice stops.

If they don’t, the first step is to use a door hanger to inform them of the code. Then, they give the owners 48 hours’ notice before fining them $75.

But the chance of getting paid, Westley said, is about 50-50.

“I don’t know why people don’t want to shovel their walks,” she said, not only as a common courtesy, but also because of the high fall risk for children or the elderly.

At a Feb. 14 Hollidaysburg Borough Council meeting, members responded to resident Ashley Sorge’s concerns regarding snow removal, when he recalled an older man in a motorized wheelchair getting stuck on a snow-filled sidewalk.

Noncompliance with snow removal is a recurring and serious problem, he told them, and if someone hadn’t been there to help, the man could have been stuck for hours.

Borough code requires residents, either property owners or tenants, clear a path of at least 30 inches on sidewalks. In C-2 commercially zoned districts, property owners must clear the entire sidewalk.

Borough Manager Mark Schroyer told council no matter what the code says, without a full-time code enforcement officer, it’s difficult to make people comply.

The code empowers borough officials to have a sidewalk cleared if a resident hasn’t done so within 96 hours. Then they can bill the resident for the cost, plus 10 percent. There’s also the possibility of a $25 to $600 fine or up to 30 days’ imprisonment.

Schroyer said by the time a resident receives a warning letter, often the snow has melted. And because each snowfall is treated as a separate incident, it’s hard to build a case against any one person.

If the issue gets taken before the magistrate, sometimes people fight it and the cost to the borough of doing so offsets the fine, he said.

Councilman Tim Beresnyak proposed school students shovel sidewalks as a way of earning service hours. It could cut down on code violations and help elderly residents who are incapable of shoveling themselves, he said.

Councilman Joseph Pompa said it may be time to hire a part-time code enforcement officer. Schroyer said he would look into it for the March 14 meeting.

The one place where snow doesn’t seem to cause much problem is in Tyrone, whose residents must clear a path of at least 32 inches.

Police Chief John Romeo said having a full-time code enforcement officer helps keep residents compliant with borough code, but most residents seem to be responsible when it comes to clearing sidewalks.

There’s only been one complaint so far this winter, he said, and it was filed Feb. 20 by the parking meter attendant about a business owner’s sidewalk.

More often than not, Romeo said, people take the time to shovel and salt because they know someone will call in about it if they don’t and the ordinance will be enforced.

People in other boroughs aren’t as proactive, however.

Williamsburg Borough Manager Dennis Clapper said there has always been a problem with people in winter, either not shoveling paths near the post office or not moving their cars for plow trucks.

Because the borough can’t enforce the ordinance, Clapper will call the police chief to have officers knock on doors to make people move the cars.

Some people, he said, will even look out their windows and watch the plow driver struggling to clear the roads. A lone car can mess up plowing for three or four spaces.

“Then some people will call in and say, ‘Hey I got my car out. Can you come back?'” Clapper said. “People aren’t responsible enough, that’s the problem.”

The borough could charge for cleaning sidewalks, but “it doesn’t mean we’ll get paid,” Clapper said.

Altoona’s Westley said code enforcement officers do everything they can, but no amount of resources will make people change their ways.

Clapper said there is one way to ensure sidewalks are clean.

“If Mother Nature doesn’t give us any snow,” he said.

Mirror Staff Writer Kelly Cernetich is at 946-7520.