October 28, 2020

Sidewalk snow removal is a contentious issue, one often raised during public consultations with the City of Kitchener.  And it is one that is rearing its head again following the freezing rain and snow that has left residents of the city with hundreds of enforcement warnings, and dozens of invoices being issued for snow removal.

Though Kitchener already had the power to order maintenance on a sidewalk and to invoice the homeowner for the service, enforcement was complaint-based and rarely enforced. That changed this winter season, thanks to a proposal that was put before council last year.

“We went to council with a host of options in terms of pilot programs to try out what sidewalk winter maintenance options worked or were received well by residents and were cost effective,” said Roslyn Lusk, director of operations, roads and traffic, for the City of Kitchener.

In the proposal, the pilot programs were as follows:

  • Having a dedicated enforcement officer conducting sidewalk inspections between November and April to make sure snow is being cleared.
  • The city clears snow from all sidewalks after a snow event when eight centimetres or more falls within a 24-hour period.
  • Designate an area of the city where there’s 40 kilometres of sidewalk and clear all the snow after every snowfall.
  • Install sensor stations that can measure pavement surface conditions.
  • Explore partnerships with community groups, such as The Working Centre, to help those who are unable to clear their own sidewalks.

In June 2018, council voted to defer the implementation of several of the pilot programs, pending a review in May 2019.

A snow-covered sidewalk hides treacherous ice underneath it on Acacia Street in Kitchener, Ont., on Feb. 10. Photo by Darick Charbonneau, Spoke News

“This year, we have a proactive bylaw pilot that we’re doing. We’re doing an assisted snow-clearing services pilot and we’re doing a snow blower pilot.  Out of the proposals we presented to council, those are the three things that council wanted us to do this year,” said Lusk.

“Is it doable by the residents? How much does it cost? What is the level of service and what are the expectations of the residents? So we had a battery of different options and they (city council) in fact chose the programs that were implemented this winter,” explained Lusk.

The proactive bylaw pilot Lusk mentioned consists of four bylaw officers, hired at a cost of $170,000, to patrol the city and looked for uncleared sidewalks. They focus on residential areas as well as high-traffic areas, such as near schools or public spaces. If they find a home where the owner has not cleared the sidewalk sufficiently, they issue a warning to the homeowner, who then has 24 hours to provide maintenance.  If after 24 hours the sidewalk is not cleared, bylaw officers will call in a crew to clear the sidewalk at the homeowner’s expense. The average cost is approximately $280, but can be as high as $400.

A poorly cleared sidewalk like this one on Ottawa Street South in Kitchener, Ont., would warrant a warning from bylaw officers. Photo by Darick Charbonneau, Spoke News

However, not every section of Kitchener’s 1,200 kilometres of sidewalks is cleared by residents.

“The City of Kitchener is very active in terms of maintaining sidewalks that are in our ownership. We have 12 kilometres of sidewalk in the downtown core that we maintain, and there is an additional almost 190 kilometres of sidewalks that … we clear because there is no resident or no commercial owner. In addition to that, we have about 35 kilometres of trails and paths. Everything together, there are about 236 kilometres of access routes that we actually maintain,” said Lusk.

The cost for clearing those 236 kilometres comes in around $2 million — the same amount the City of Kitchener recently approved for the construction of five kilometres of protected bike lanes and for winter maintenance of bike lanes.

“There are many competing priorities when it comes to winter maintenance,” explained Lusk. “We’re not choosing one over another; we are trying to balance the needs of many different users of our right-of-ways, whether they are on the road, in a car, on a bike lane or on a sidewalk as pedestrians or a person with mobility issues.”

While some people question the priority of bike lane winter maintenance, others would like to simply pay more in taxes to have the city clear sidewalks.

Dangerous ice buildup poses a hazard to everyone who walks onto it. Photo by Darick Charbonneau, Spoke News

An article in the Waterloo Region Record in June 2018 quotes Coun. Frank Etherington as saying, “I’ve been getting a lot more calls and comment and emails from people who say they’re willing to pay up to a $50 increase on their taxes in order to get the city more involved in clearing sidewalks.”

That comes after a 2016 report to the city, which estimated that taxes would have to be increased by 2.5 per cent, or approximately $27 a year, to provide for the clearing of all 1,200 kms of sidewalk in Kitchener.

Lusk disputes this number.

“The numbers reported were order-magnitude, and they were not accurate,” Lusk said.  “This is part of the reason we’re having the review in May…. Once we’ve gathered accurate information, we will have a more reasonable, educated number.”

“I don’t believe that the taxpayers are willing to pay the amount that it will cost for us to provide winter maintenance,” she added.

Kitchener residents wait to cross Mill Street in Kitchener, Ont. on Feb. 10, 2019. Photo by Darick Charbonneau, Spoke News

While many people would like the city to start taking care of sidewalk maintenance, there are others who are against the idea.

“If that happens, the city will just subcontract the work out to local companies and that means I’ll be spending more nights out shovelling snow,” said Todd Johnson, a local yard maintenance worker who spends the winter clearing snow from sidewalks and plazas. He is skeptical that the city will change its position on snow removal.

“It is inherently the responsibility of the homeowner to provide that service when they need it,” said Lusk.

“To effectively manage the expectations of a resident in terms of providing winter maintenance from the city for the sidewalks is unrealistic. We know this … from the results of other municipalities that actually provide winter maintenance of the sidewalks. Their complaints have skyrocketed because the level of service expected cannot be met. We cannot deploy our resources ubiquitously across the city instantaneously; they have to start and end somewhere, so not everybody’s sidewalk will be cleared when Mr. Smith goes to his doctor’s appointment at 7 a.m. in the morning.”

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