There won't be special ski-mounted police patrols or a most-wanted list of egregious violators, but Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan said yesterday he will grudgingly enforce a new county ordinance requiring residents to shovel the sidewalk in front of their homes.
Yesterday's snowfall brings the first real test of the Pedestrian Winter Safety Act, passed by the Montgomery County Council last year to address worries about children forced into the streets when snow-packed sidewalks are impassable. It requires residents -- like business owners -- to shovel sidewalks within 24 hours of the storm's end or face a $50 fine.
When the measure was first discussed in spring 2001, Duncan (D) said he found the idea of fining violators excessive and worried that some elderly and disabled homeowners would be unable to comply. He ultimately refused to sign it, but the council passed it anyway. Yesterday, he said he will go along, but he's not happy about it.
"It's the last thing we need," he said. "This was an early storm for us, a big storm, and I don't want seniors getting nervous about getting a ticket."
Duncan said he has no intention of issuing snow-shoveling citations or sending out sidewalk inspectors. Instead, the county will answer complaints about unswept walkways with a stern warning letter to scofflaws.
"You are in violation of Section 49-24A of the Montgomery County Code, Accumulation of snow and ice on property," the letter reads in part. "We urge all residents to comply with the new law, and to make every effort to be good neighbors."
Other jurisdictions also tend to look the other way when it comes to shoveling laws. Howard and Prince George's counties, for instance, require sidewalks to be cleared within 48 hours of a storm -- but officials in Prince George's, at least, can't recall ever enforcing it.
In Loudoun County, residents can be fined $250 per day if they don't scrape sidewalks clean. There, property owners have just six hours to finish the job. But Loudoun officials said they could not recall the last time someone was cited, and that's not because everyone there is quick with a spade.
"No one in this department goes around telling people to shovel," said an official from the Department of Building and Development, which is responsible for enforcing the regulations. "No way. Good Lord!"
Elsewhere, shoveling remains an unwritten civic duty, and failure to chip in is frowned upon but not punished.
"We obviously encourage citizens and businesses to keep the sidewalks safe . . . and that includes shoveling," Fairfax County spokeswoman Merni Fitzgerald said. But there's no law in Fairfax. Nor is there one in Arlington.
The ordinance in Montgomery was a brainchild of County Council member Philip Andrews (D-Rockville), who had taken the initial calls from anxious parents requesting some sort of action. The loudest complaints came from those with children at Argyle Middle School on busy Bel Pre Road in Silver Spring.
There, students who walk to the school were being forced to trudge alongside whizzing, 40-mph traffic because snowdrifts were blocking the sidewalk, said Judy Docca, who was principal at the time the measure passed.
"Many of the property owners just didn't shovel the walks ever," Docca said. "We had storms where snowbanks were piled really high, and the road curves, and the kids would basically be invisible behind them. It was very dangerous."
With so much at stake, Andrews said yesterday that he fully expects Duncan to enforce the measure, whether he likes it or not. "He took an oath," Andrews said.
But even the law's supporters don't want to see the county get too heavy-handed with violators.
"It's clearly a legitimate issue, particularly when you're talking about children and safety," said County Council member Steven A. Silverman (D-At Large). "But this is like most laws. It's basically self-enforcement."
Still, Duncan's aides couldn't resist making light of the law, cracking that they had yet to establish a hotline for ornery residents to snitch on their neighbors or to put police on skis to patrol the 1,000 miles of county sidewalk subject to enforcement.
What the county has done, said Duncan special assistant David Weaver, taking a more serious tone, is enlist the support of the county's volunteer center, where people who are unable to shovel snow can be matched up with charitable souls in their neighborhood who are willing to help out. Volunteer shovelers and those in need of assistance are encouraged to call 240-777-2600, Weaver said.
Of course, the sun or a little rain could move in to handle that job before anyone else has to.
That, Duncan said, would be the best scenario of all.