Is it illegal not to shovel your sidewalk?

A simple question with a slippery answer
Posted at 12:04 PM, Jan 21, 2016
and last updated 2017-01-05 10:11:24-05

CINCINNATI — I live in Covington, Kentucky, and after snowfall, I find myself surrounded by criminals. If you live in Cincinnati, you probably do, too.

Now, before jumping to stereotypical reasons why this might be true, consider the state of these cities' sidewalks after a modest snowfall. When it comes to my hometown, with a few (heroic) exceptions, a walk along the city sidewalks usually requires skilled maneuvering and heavy snow boots. Some just abandon all hope and walk in the street, where the plows have no doubt already cleared the snow (theoretically).

In both of these cities, the uncleared sidewalks are evidence of a crime. That's because in both cities, property owners are legally obligated to clear snow and ice from their sidewalks and any abutting sidewalks.

But it's not necessarily the property owner's fault — at least not entirely.

The problem is that it’s not always clear who is legally responsible for keeping the walk in sidewalk, despite the weather or season. That’s because the answer changes depending on where you’re walking.

Is it the city’s job? The property owner’s? Some other mythical entity that inevitably disappears with winter’s first snowfall?

Governing bodies spanning from city- to state-levels have offered guidelines on the issue, but the truth is, no one seems capable of agreeing on the topic.

For example, in 1992, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled:

A homeowner has no common-law duty to remove or make less hazardous a natural accumulation of ice and snow on private sidewalks or walkways on the homeowner’s premises, or to warn those who enter upon the premises of the inherent dangers presented by natural accumulations of ice and snow.

Well, when you put it that way, Ohio Supreme Court, it sounds pretty straightforward (if not downright Machiavellian).

But, if we take, for a more local sample set, Cincinnati, Covington and Newport — three of the numerous urban areas throughout the Tri-State where daily pedestrian traffic is commonplace — the snow gets a little darker.

Both Cincinnati and Covington score immediate points, in that they both have clear ordinances on the books. But their approach seems to diverge from the sentiment expressed by the Ohio Supreme Court. Newport doesn't even know what to do about snow on sidewalks.

Here’s a detailed breakdown of each city’s laws:

Cincinnati - Remove Snow or Pay $25

According to Cincinnati’s municipal code, property owners are required to clear sidewalks in front of their property within the first 4 hours of daylight after a snowfall and to clear ice within the first 2 hours of daylight.

If you don’t, you could get slapped with a $25 fine.

Former City Manager Milton Dohoney explained in a 2011 memo that, while the ordinance is intended to ease the “impossible” burden of clearing snow and ice from all of a city’s sidewalks, the law also does not impose any liability on owners and tenants for injury incurred by a pedestrian traversing their sidewalk.

Covington - Remove Snow, or city will (at a cost)

In Covington, property owners are required to remove snow and ice from abutting sidewalks within 12 hours of daylight after snow or ice falls.

The penalty for not doing so is that the city (theoretically) may intervene at the cost of a lien on the property equal to the cost of snow removal.

Newport - Litter and spit? No way. Snow and ice? No problem.

Of the three in our sample set, Newport law requires residents keep their sidewalks clear of litter, debris — even spit — but, when it comes to snow, the ordinance makes no mention.

A city staffer told WCPO that the Newport City Commission is considering taking another look at the ordinance to possibly add a directive about snow and ice removal from sidewalks.

So, if you live in one of those three cities, now you know what's expected of property owners when snow falls. If not, all it takes to find out is a quick phone call to your city's administrative offices.