In June, the region’s thoughts typically turn to vacations, ice-cold drinks, and warm sunshine kissing the skin. But Jenny Steinen is stuck on the winter weather that brought her to court last month.
Because of her ordeal, whenever snow falls in West Chester, there’s one tool Steinen grabs before she touches her shovel – her phone.
She takes “before” pictures of her sidewalk prior to shoveling and then “after” shots.
She never used to do this. Then, in December, the borough told her she had violated its snow and ice removal law. According to the ordinance, “property owners shall remove all snow and ice” within 24 hours after snow stops. A code enforcement officer said she left a “dusting” of snow on the interlocking bricks of her sidewalk 25 hours after the end of a storm that dropped about four inches in the borough on Dec. 9 and 10.
She was fined $25.
“You don’t really think of protecting yourself from your own government,” the 59-year-old sixth-grade English teacher said.
She knows she shoveled, because she remembered feeling “disgruntled” that her 22-year-old son didn’t help. Steinen did not, however, sprinkle salt in front of her home, as some of her neighbors did. She said salt gets into groundwater and the plants and strawberry patch she grows in her yard.
And on top of that, her dog Hector had sores on his feet that she didn’t want to irritate.
Steinen, who worked as a public defender for 14 years, took her case to District Court. As a prop, she brought along her shovel, dented at the edges from catching on her sidewalk’s bricks. (Sheriffs confiscated it at the door.) Nevertheless, the judge found her guilty of violating the ordinance.
“I was appalled,” she said. She appealed to Chester County Court, where she won last month — five months after the snow stopped. She did not have to pay the fine or the additional $89.71 in court costs. But she couldn’t get back the $50 fee required for an appeal hearing.
Even so, she said fighting the citation was worth it.
“You have to. Knowing that I had shoveled my sidewalk. Knowing I was not guilty,” she said. “I’m afraid people pay the ticket even if they shovel. They feel it’s hopeless to try to fight for what is right.”
She had read a January story in the Inquirer and Daily News about a West Chester man charged with violating the borough’s snow and ice removal ordinance, learned he was only a few houses away, and left him a note telling him she was appealing and he should too. He followed her advice and a County Court judge found him not guilty in April.
Because of Steinen’s case, West Chester officials are taking another look at the ordinance. The proposed changes include allowing residents to pay fines to the borough instead of borough officials’ immediately starting criminal court proceedings. Notices from the court can take weeks to get to a resident. Steinen’s citation came Dec. 27, 16 days after the alleged violation. She said a man a few houses down just paid the fine when he got his citation a few weeks after a storm, because he couldn’t remember whether he had shoveled.
The new ordinance also would set minimum fines at $30 for first offenses and higher amounts for subsequent offenses if the fine is paid within seven days. Otherwise, the borough would take residents to court. Officials expect the new ordinance will be ready for a public hearing in the next month or two. Steinen said she wants to see borough officials tell residents what time they consider a snowfall finished, so property owners know when the clock starts ticking to clear walkways.
Municipal ordinances in the region and across the state typically give residents four to 24 hours after the end of a snowfall to clear their sidewalks, said Edward Knittel, director of education and sustainability for the Pennsylvania State Association of Boroughs. Instead of fines, Knittel said he favors a gentler solution: education, especially emphasizing to homeowners their legal liability if someone were to slip on uncleared sidewalks.
“The issue of a dusting of snow being a problem perhaps was an overreaction,” said Knittel, a municipal manager for 34 years. “I’ve never quite seen that level of enforcement.”
Knittel also wondered whether the resources involved — namely the code enforcement officer’s time and a solicitor’s court appearance — were worth it in the end.
Depending on the strength of the snowy season, the borough of 20,000 typically issues from 20 to 150 citations in a year, said Borough Manager Mike Perrone. The borough sent out 171 in 2017, and 51 this year. Usually, people pay their fines — typically $25, but judges can ask for up to $1,000 — and that’s that. Sometimes, they take their case to District Court. Appeals to County Court are “very rare,” Perrone said.
“The most important thing is the snow removed from the sidewalk,” he said. “The fine is the deterrent so they don’t do it again.”
Steinen said she had received a violation notice two decades ago after she failed to shovel in time.
She had to pay $68, she said, “and I never forgot to shovel again.”