Water, snow and you

When I started thinking about why I was hearing so many complaints about snow on streets, sidewalks, and crosswalks, I focused on the quality of city services.  But in the course of looking into the issues surrounding snow in our community, I realized that I really needed to look at water – whether liquid or fluffy.

The amount of precipitation falling on our community has increased – significantly.

  • The average annual amount of liquid precipitation (that’s rain, melted snow, and melted ice) for the seven decades between 1905 and 1974 was 30.5 inches.
  • The average annual amount of liquid precipitation for the four decades between 1975 and 2014 was 35.8 inches.
  • And the average annual amount of liquid precipitation in the last decade – from 2005 to 2014 – was 38.9 inches.

That’s a big increase – and the City infrastructure and services must regularly address ways to deal with all that water.

liquid-precipitationThis isn’t news, but it is important.

It’s not news because we’ve all noticed that there are problems effectively anticipating how much snow we will confront each year, and how much rain we can expect.  What is a 100-year storm, anyway?

It is important because the City’s biggest projects over the last few years, and the City’s biggest ongoing infrastructure changes, all deal with water.

And that is where I want to start.

If you are impatient to see the survey results, you may skip ahead.  I hope that you will stick around a little longer, though, to see what I learned.

When I moved to Ann Arbor in 1973, many of my neighbors were talking about the 1969 flood that caused so much damage – and that resulted in some significant changes in City infrastructure projects.  I recall seeing photos in the Ann Arbor News of a section of water main being replaced – and the water main was constructed of wood.  In the years since, I’ve seen massive infrastructure projects, each of which included storm water components.

If water has always been in the thoughts of City engineers, how to deal with that water has not been simple – ever.  The standards continue to change, and our expectations also change.  And – equally important to my mind – the conditions have changed.

This shows up in a number of policy changes.  For just a moment, glance at the changed requirements(from 2010) if you were to add 200 or more square feet to your house.  In addition, the Washtenaw County Water Resources Commissioner established revised storm water standards for new developments in an effort to decrease the impact new developments’ impervious surface can have on a community’s infrastructure; Ann Arbor, in turn, adopted and applies these new standards.

What has this to do with whether the City ought to plow your sidewalks?

I wanted to understand why our expectations about snow had changed.  One measure might be whether we were more pedestrian-oriented than in the past.  But in 1905, when many residents did not own vehicles and used public transit and walked, there was no expectation that City government would remove all the snow within 24 hours from streets, much less from sidewalks.  (Just getting sidewalks installed in many neighborhoods remains a challenge and a discussion point.)  And when I moved to Michigan, I was surprised to learn that Ann Arbor didn’t get a lot of snow – and what we did receive generally melted pretty quickly.  Dealing with that snow was a lot easier – and not just because we were all younger.

That was then.  This is now.  And the amount of annual snowfall has nearly doubled in the past 11 decades.  More significantly, it has increased in the last four.

  • The average amount of snowfall recorded in the seven decades between 1905 and 1974 was almost 34 inches.
  • The average amount of snowfall in the four decades between 1975 and 2014 was 57.45 inches.
  • And the average amount of snowfall in the last decade was 64.74 inches.

snowfallNo wonder we are so grumpy about the snow.

There are a lot of pieces to the snow-removal puzzle.  And talking about snow on sidewalks is just one.  Of the over 2000 individual newsletters I sent out – and the additional people who responded from Facebook and Twitter notices – I received 172 survey responses.  As an opt-in survey, that’s pretty impressive.  Of course, this was an opinion survey – you had to have one and had to want to share it with me before you would even click on the link.  It’s not a random-sample survey, it does not predict any future actions, but I found it illuminating.

Survey results

Should the City take on the responsibility of plowing sidewalks?  161 individuals responded.

Would you be willing to pay more, through a millage (which would be limited to pay for this function, only), in order for this to happen?  127 individuals responded.


These responses, of course, do not mean that the Council will vote to place such a millage on the ballot.  I believe they reflect our frustration with the amount of snow, the lack of snow melt (what ever happened to that January thaw?), and the effects on individual property owners as the City attempts to plow more often and more thoroughly.  Asking about whether we would be willing to pay more for more services is a way to measure how important we see the issue.  Right now, you can already pay to have your sidewalks and driveway plowed (note – the driveway is always the property owner’s responsibility).  You and your neighbors can jointly hire a company to clear the snow on your whole block, or in your entire neighborhood.  Subdivisions and condominium associations routinely hire companies; many landscaping companies survive the winter by providing winter maintenance.

I believe we need to look at this question differently – what is the impact of increased precipitation on my neighborhood, the watershed, the streets and sidewalks, and my ability to travel in my community?  And what should the City’s responsibilities be in this changing weather pattern?  In a broad sense, those questions are being addressed by the City’s various stormwater study efforts, by the Green Streets policy, and by efforts to improve both stormwater/meltwater systems and our general snowplowing concerns.

In your words

Many of those who responded to the survey included comments and insights.  Here are some of the messages I heard:

Businesses already build in clearing costs of sidewalks, parking lots, etc.  I would most support the clearing of sidewalks in residential neighborhoods.

The City ought to clear bike/foot paths. Residents and businesses ought to clear their sidewalks.

I’m already paying a private company $75 a season to clear the snow off the sidewalk in front of my house.  I’d just as soon give that money to the city.

It depends on cost and if taxes would be raised/by how much.-Rental properties are also an issue. The city would likely hire contractors anyway and I can do that myself.

Sidewalks, no. Homeowners can do that. Public paths, yes.

The city should either get serious about enforcing its ordinance, or take it over and do it for everyone.  Either way, the city should take over clearing out crosswalks when the city is plowing snow into them.  The city causes as much of the problem on sidewalks as scofflaw homeowners do.

The city should enforce the rule that people have to take care of their sidewalk for the pedestrians, though! People who do not want to shovel can hire someone to do it. Some of us take pride in doing it for our neighbors and enjoy the exercise.

Yes for low income and elderly – the rest of us should be able to manage our own sidewalks.  But there is another issue – cut throughs on big snow berms.  Sometimes sidewalks are clear, but if you park you can’t cross to the sidewalk – perhaps the city should do this piece.   Sometimes Cedar Bend Drive off Fuller actually gets snow-bermed in.

I live in Water Hill and the all-volunteer, crowd funded (public-radio style) experiment has been wonderful. I admit I thought this was a dumb idea at first, but it has been amazing.

My problem is that we do not have any sidewalks in our neighborhood. I would not like to be taxed for this service.

This is a safety issue and would make the city more walkable–a good goal. Your estimate of $22 annual increase in taxes each year seemed like a very reasonable cost. Anything under $50 per year would be o.k. as a cost for clearing all sidewalks.

Special assessment would be better, so that those who have sidewalks along their property pay.

Taxes are too high already in A2.

That is exactly why I said NO.  I do not want to pay anymore taxes.  The city needs to do a better job plowing the streets—getting closer to the curbs so mail persons who deliver by vehicle can actually drive up to the mail box.

I have come to not trust politicians or the government when they want to increase taxes.

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4 Responses to Water, snow and you

  1. Michael says:

    Your poll doesn’t say how much the millage would be, or how soon the sidewalks would be cleared. I’m seeing $60 per year bandied about now, but no indication of how soon sidewalks would be plowed. Will it be within a day? Will it be three days? I suspect people are assuming their sidewalks will be cleared quickly, and that the reality will be otherwise. Such an important question to have the answer for, before taking a poll.

    • sbriere says:

      At the time this poll was conducted, there were no figures available for the possible costs. The City indicates (as of 3/16/15) that this cost could be as much as $2.7 million each year, with start-up costs of about $1 million – so a total 5-year cost of over $14 million.

      On the assumption that this is correct, that would mean millage of about $340 per property for 5 years, or about $67 per property per year.

      In the accompanying newsletter, I had included some back-of-the-envelope estimates, assuming that the City would clear sidewalks only if there were 4 inches, and based on the costs for Rochester.

      Of course, the City would not plow driveways or clear the walk to the house. No matter what policy might be considered, these would remain the responsibility of the property owner/resident.

      Until and unless the City puts a millage on the ballot, any policy about the sidewalks being cleared (to what standard, how soon, by whom) will only be notional.

      I agree that complete implementation information is always useful, but it’s not always practical – especially when just trying to get the community’s temperature on an issue.

      As an aside, I hired a snow plowing company to remove my snow each of the past two winters. They come when the snow is 2 inches or deeper. This year they have come out 14 times – for a cost of $560. Big hit to my budget, but a major benefit to me and to my spouse.

  2. Michael says:

    I have to say, I’m surprised that the base assumption was the city clearing the sidewalk was only for a snowfall of 4 inches. What happens if there is a 2 – 3 inch snowfall? Are homeowners still responsible for shoveling the sidewalk? If the threshold for clearing the sidewalks drops to 1 inch, the current threshold for homeowners having to shovel, how much does the cost rise?

    • sbriere says:

      Perhaps you misunderstood.

      When I did the calculation, I did not make an assumption about any decision the City and its residents would make. I was clear that I looked at Rochester, NY’s policy – which is the City clears sidewalks after a 4 inch storm. That was because I could find both the number of miles of sidewalk and the budgeted amount for the City to do the work.

      One of the problems making an estimate is that it is necessary to make some assumptions.

      Here is what I wrote in my newsletter (introducing the survey):

      “I’ve heard that Rochester, NY residents pay more – and get their sidewalks plowed.

      “Rochester, NY is about 37 square miles in size (Ann Arbor is about 28 square miles), and has about twice as many residents as Ann Arbor (Census records for Rochester indicate about 210,000 residents in 2010 compared to Ann Arbor’s about 114,000 in 2010). It clears almost 900 miles of sidewalk at a cost of $1.1 million – and it clears that sidewalk only after 4 (four) inches of snow falls in a single storm. Residents and property owners remain responsible for clearing the sidewalks if the snowfall is lighter (1 – 3 inches). Even if there are multiple small storms, the residents and property owners are responsible.

      “The average annual amount of snow in Ann Arbor is over 50 inches, although there can be significant variance (last winter Ann Arbor got over 90 inches). The average annual amount of snow in Rochester is about 100 inches; last year that city received about 113 inches.

      “I estimate that clearing Ann Arbor’s nearly 500 miles of sidewalk after a 4-inch snow would add about $900,000 to the budget – because even if there are fewer miles, the City will still need to either hire more staff and buy/maintain more equipment or contract this service privately. To cover this cost, the voters would have agree to increase taxes by about $22 per year.

      “And of course, these are only my estimates, based on Rochester, NY’s published costs.”

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