Chapel Hill News

Chapel Hill residents give chilly feedback over snow, ice removal

Icy sidewalks continue to be a problem in Chapel Hill

VIDEO: Chapel Hill resident Tom Jensen traverses icy sidewalks on his way to a bus stop after last week's storm. Jensen and others say the town should do more to help pedestrians as it promotes high-rise development and walkability.
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VIDEO: Chapel Hill resident Tom Jensen traverses icy sidewalks on his way to a bus stop after last week's storm. Jensen and others say the town should do more to help pedestrians as it promotes high-rise development and walkability.

Residents angered by what they saw as the glacial pace of winter cleanup blasted town and UNC officials this week in emails and on social media.

Homeowners fumed as plows pushed fresh ice into recently shoveled spots, undoing hours of work. Frustrated pedestrians moved to the streets, risking a brush with traffic rather than the frozen sidewalks.

While most sidewalks were clear by Thursday, tall piles of ice and snow blocked curb cuts and some crosswalks in busy pedestrian corridors.

The town talks “a big game about being a pedestrian-friendly community but time after time takes an approach when these events happen that makes things worse for pedestrians to help cars,” resident Tom Jensen said in an email to the town. “Chapel Hill should be able to do better.”

The danger moved Travis Crayton, co-editor of the blog OrangePolitics.org, to start an online petition asking the town and UNC to prioritize sidewalks.

The current policy “is unacceptable,” he said.

The petition – chn.ge/1ZSW2p1 – had 52 signatures Thursday. It specifically called out Town Council member Nancy Oates, who had advised Twitter followers to “knock on the door of the property owner and remind him it’s his responsibility to clear the walk.”

Many towns, including Chapel Hill, limit their snow and ice removal work to streets and sidewalks at public property, leaving home and business owners to clear the sidewalks and driveways abutting their individual properties. Some also clean off sidewalks in downtown business districts.

Oates said that was the case in her native Midwest, but few people do that now. Her current neighborhood off Piney Mountain Road is hilly and doesn’t have sidewalks, she said, so they spent hours Monday chipping away at icy pavement.

The point she was trying to make – lost in the flurry of tweets, Oates said — is that shoveling sidewalks is not the town’s responsibility. But there is a opportunity for an enterprising person to make some money, she said, or for the high schools to offer community service hours to teens willing to do the work.

Well, if we’re going to add a service – shoveling sidewalks – where’s the money going to come from?

Town Council member Nancy Oates

Chapel Hill resident Penny Rich, a county commissioner and former council member who fell on the recent ice, had a similar suggestion.

“What a great idea if, during storms, we would go up to the men’s transitional home and see if some of the guys there – the ones who are able, the younger guys – can help clear the sidewalks during the storm, and pay them,” she said.

Oates said she has little patience for folks who say the answer is simple.

“The problem that we run into in government is one of the things I tweeted, is people want more services than they are willing to pay for,” she said. “We hear all the time as council members, taxes in Chapel Hill are too high. Well, if we’re going to add a service – shoveling sidewalks – where’s the money going to come from? It either has to come from taxpayers or we have to take it from another program.”

Brine, salt and sand

Public Works crews started working around the clock Jan. 21, pre-treating streets with brine and following up with salt and sand. The plowing started Saturday, Jan. 23, officials said, but the 2 to 4 inches of wintry mix was mostly sleet that packed down, complicating the work. (Watch town vehicles handle the ice at bit.ly/1Ur8paf)

Crews also were delayed by low nighttime temperatures and clouds, they said. Public Works director Lance Norris said other towns and the N.C. Department of Transportation – responsible for Franklin Street, Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and other major roads – faced similar challenges.

Carrboro saw similar conditions, said Public Works director James “JD” Freeman. While the town now has two sidewalk snow sweepers and a multipurpose vehicle armed with a plow and salt spreader for bike paths, none were useful for removing the recent ice from sidewalks, he said.

Chapel Hill Mayor Pam Hemminger said she’s proud of how town staff responded to the storm, which presented “all kinds of unique difficulties.”

“I know how inconvenienced everyone was by the storm, and I hated it for everyone,” she said. “Some of our workers worked 30 hours straight, and then took a break.”

That was little comfort to residents who found snowplows pushing piles of ice onto their driveways and sidewalks, undoing hours of work.

The complaints prompted a shoveling tip from council member Donna Bell: Focus on clearing an area about 10 feet to the left of the driveway. When the plow comes down the street, it should push the snow into the cleared area and not back onto the driveway. (See video bit.ly/1TmUJPl)

Tammy Grubb: 919-829-8926, @TammyGrubb

School response

Residents also questioned the local response to iced-over school parking lots and driveways.

Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools spokesman Jeff Nash confirmed the district is responsible for clearing its property and determining when students can safely return to school.

The schools hired a contractor to help its nine-member maintenance crew clear the district’s 20 campuses, Nash said. School custodians also pitched in if they could make it to school and had time. Shaded roads, he said, posed the biggest hurdle to getting students back to school, because the sun couldn’t help in those spots and nighttime temperatures encouraged anything that thawed to refreeze.

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