Under city law, the onus is on the adjacent property owners and occupants to keep sidewalks clear.
The city of Seattle has plowed major streets and bus routes during the February 2019 snowstorms, but what about those slippery sidewalks?
Under city law, the onus is on the adjacent property owners and occupants to keep them clear.
The Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) says it’s responsible for only part of the 2,300 miles of sidewalks and paved paths.
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The agency’s winter-response plan calls for treating pedestrian overpasses within 24 hours of the start of a storm and clearing downtown sidewalks within 12 hours of a lull, said SDOT spokesman Ethan Bergerson.
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The plan also identifies 1,000 curb ramps and approximately 30 stairways to be cleared that aren’t next to homes or businesses. Bergerson couldn’t provide a list, but said “there’s a lot of thought and preparation that goes into identifying these locations long before the cold weather arrives.”
In 2019, public officials also responded to pedestrians complaints about snowy sidewalks on freeway overpasses such as on Denny Way crossing Interstate 5.
But other than that, it’s up to adjacent property owners to clear sidewalks of overgrown trees and shrubs, make necessary repairs when cracks appear and remove snow when it piles up.
“If you’re able, treat or shovel the snow and ice from your sidewalks and paths,” said Andrés Mantilla, director of the Seattle Department of Neighborhoods. “While you’re at it, shovel your neighbors’ as well, especially those who need assistance.”
Gov. Jay Inslee even joked that students who are at home and shovel their elderly neighbors’ driveways may make attractive candidates for Washington universities.
If you don’t shovel your sidewalk, does that mean you’re liable if someone slips and gets hurt? That depends.
“It’s not something totally standard,” said Stacia Hofmann, an attorney who has represented Pacific Northwest businesses in lawsuits over slip and falls.
The Washington state Supreme Court has ruled differently in cases over the years, she said, “but yes, you can be sued.”
Often, decisions come down to whether conditions were dangerous and whether the defendant knew or should have known that another person wouldn’t have realized there was potential danger.
Property owners can be fined $250 for failing to clear snow from sidewalks, under the Seattle Municipal Code. But Hofmann said she’s never heard of anyone being ticketed since snow is infrequent in Seattle.
The fine is not a criminal citation, so the Seattle City Attorney’s office wouldn’t track them, said spokesman Dan Nolte.
The system relies on the goodwill — and strong backs — of property owners to clear their sidewalks and those of neighbors who have disabilities, are out of town, or otherwise unwilling to do it themselves.
That has prompted some walking advocates to question the city’s transportation priorities.
“Making clearing sidewalks the responsibility of the property owner seems like a reflection that it’s not really a lane of travel that suffers if one parcel is a complete sheet of ice,” Ryan Packer, senior editor at The Urbanist, wrote in a tweet.
Unlike streets, the city doesn’t identify priority sidewalks to be cleared, Bergerson said.
In a news conference Monday, Mayor Jenny Durkan said the city will review its handling of the snowstorms — the worst the region has seen in three decades — and consider developing such a priority system for sidewalk clearing.
“We will evaluate everything we’ve done to see what worked and what didn’t work now that we have a denser city and people are working and commuting in different ways,” she said.
Bergerson encouraged people to report hazardous sidewalks and roads on the Find It Fix It app, by calling 206-684-ROAD (7623) or by emailing 684-Road@Seattle.gov.
Hofmann said she’s of two minds about the current system. One on hand, the city controls sidewalks and requires homeowners to obtain permits before making repairs, so she sees how people might think the city should be responsible for clearing snow.
On the other hand, she said part of the privilege of owning a home are the responsibilities that come with it.
“It’s a well established law, and I don’t see it going away any time soon,” she said.
Property owners also are responsible for removing limbs brought down by heavy snow from privately-maintained trees, SDOT wrote in a blog post.
However, if a fallen tree or limb is blocking a street or sidewalk, city crews will take action. Residents can call the SDOT 24-hour dispatch at 206-386-1218.
If a branch falls on electrical wires, residents should call Seattle City Light at 206-386-1733.