When Albemarle High School junior Drew Lambert approached his rowing coach about starting a snow removal crew to help people, especially those who are disabled or elderly, he didn’t know he’d end up speaking to the Charlottesville City Council on behalf of those he hoped to help.
Lambert and the Albemarle Snow Crew, a volunteer effort led by members of Albemarle High School’s rowing team, have been helping people bare their snow-covered walks and drives. Community members can contact the group, which sends teams of rowers to shovel at no cost.
While the high school is located in the county, rowing Coach Scott Stroney said the team receives a large number of requests from city residents who fear fines from the city for not shoveling their sidewalks. Stroney said the crew has helped over 80 people total so far this year.
Charlottesville requires residents to shovel their sidewalks within 24 hours of the end of a snowstorm. If they fail to do so, they will be fined.
Lambert decided to speak to the city council at a meeting last week after shoveling the sidewalks of people who are cannot and finding them afraid of being fined.
Lambert, a county resident, said he was deeply impacted by the stories city residents told and that he and his teammates are concerned the city’s policy could be unfair to the elderly, disabled and low-income.
“A woman who is oxygen dependent told us that she wound up in the hospital after trying to shovel her sidewalk, because her lung had collapsed. So we’ve been helping her ever since and she lives alone. It just causes her a lot of stress because she also can’t afford to hire anyone else,” Lambert said.
“There was another woman who contacted us, and she was actually in the hospital. She kept contacting us to make sure she wouldn’t get fined. There was another woman who had her driveway and sidewalks covered by snow from the city snowplows. She lived in Belmont and we had to go help her out. She was very grateful,” he said.
“Most of these people just can’t afford to pay someone for this, but they could be fined anyway. So it’s a Catch-22 situation,” he said.
James Freas, director of the city’s Neighborhood Development Services department, said after a major snow event, the city manager’s office declares an official end of storm time. City residents are expected to shovel their sidewalks within the next 24 hours, Freas said.
“Once that 24 hour mark is hit, our staff basically begins enforcement. So if a sidewalk is identified that hasn’t been cleared, we issue a notice and at that point in time, the property owner has an additional 24 hours to clear the sidewalk,” Freas said.
If the sidewalk is not cleared, the city sends out a contractor to remove the snow and comes after the homeowner for the costs.
“We don’t have the staff to patrol the entire city after a snowstorm so there’s some priority areas that we look at that are heavily trafficked pedestrian areas or areas approximate to the schools,” Freas said. “When we do receive a number of complaints, and to the best of our ability within staffing capacity, we follow up on the complaints.”
Freas said residents are fined for the cost of the contractor, which can vary by the amount of snow. A typical payment is $80, he said.
In the last two major snowstorms last month, the city ended up fining about 15 households. Freas said that in a typical year the city hasn’t had issues with people not shoveling, but the snowstorms early this year brought some unique challenges because of how closely they occurred.
City Council would have to change the ordinance to for residents to be free of fees, Freas said.
Lambert and Stroney said that several requests for the Snow Crew’s services came from city residents who said they were referred by Deputy City Manager Sam Sanders. Sanders did not respond to a request from The Daily Progress for comment.
“We’ve been able to keep up with the demand, but it’s unconscionable what these people are going through mentally and worrying and being scared of these fines. I just felt there’s got to be a better way to do this right,” Stroney said.
While Stroney said the students were willing and ultimately able to help most of these people, he thinks the city needs a better system. The Snow Crew has started prioritizing helping city residents first due to the fine, but he’s also concerned what will happen for people if the Snow Crew can’t safely get out to help them. The students only drive out to people’s houses if the roads are clear for their own safety.
“I think this is a law that looks really good on paper and it seems really reasonable, but when you go out there and actually see its effects, it causes significant problems for many residents,” Lambert said. “I think the city wasn’t necessarily aware of this. I think they might think some people just want to get out of paying fines, but for a lot of people it just causes a lot of stress and difficulty,”
Lambert said he thinks one way the city could fix the issue is by allowing people who are unable to shovel their own sidewalks to apply for a fine waiver.
“I think people who live alone and don’t have the means to pay someone else and can’t do it themselves, that’s really the person who would need to be included in that,” Lambert said. “The city could still clear it, but they would pay for it rather than having the individual pay for it.”
Freas said the ordinance can be tricky.
“It’s obviously a challenging ordinance. We have to treat everyone fairly,” Freas said. “It’s also a significant issue for people who have any form of disability for their ability to get out and around after a storm. The sidewalks need to be cleared. So it’s a tricky issue. I think people who have difficulty clearing their own sidewalks are also the same people that potentially benefit from everyone else clearing theirs.”
He also said the issues the Snow Crew is raising are important and the city is aware of them.
“Believe me when I say I do understand the issues that the students are raising, the city understands those issues very well. And we’re very, very cognizant of the fact that for many people, this does represent a hardship,” Freas said. “We do try very hard not to create a situation that’s imposing a hardship on people.”
Stroney and Lambert hope the snow removal fine will come up on a City Council agenda in the near future and say they will continue to advocate for the city to make a change.
Stroney wants his students to realize the impact of their work and how they can make a difference in the world.
“Shoveling snow for these people is wonderful, but to incite change – positive change – is incredible,” Stroney said. “If we can leave our little mark before we pass away and just say, ‘you know what? We helped initiate positive change for a lot of people by what we did and what we’re doing.’”