Sunday, January 8, 2017

Snow, Ice & UBC in the Residential Neighbourhoods

Snowfall in the lower mainland of British Columbia is always an occasion for excitement.  Despite our nearby snow capped mountains our urban sea level communities are not very well equipped for more than a dusting of snow followed quickly by a rainy south easter.  For the past month we've experienced a cold snap that has transformed the tiny accumulations of snow on the ground into glare ice.  Sidewalks and residential neighbourhoods have subsequently turned into impromptu skating rinks.  In the City of Vancouver city officials finally responded with offers of free sand and salt (after realizing that, among other things, people were taking sand off the beaches). The resulting mayhem that followed when the salt ran out was dubbed saltmageddon.

In the UBC administrated residential spaces very little was done until late last week (January 4/5, 2017).  Throughout the long break from Christmas through New Year only Main Mall and the retail portions of Wesbrook Village had reasonable snow removal and ice free path ways.  The Ministry of Highways, responsible for the major road corridors around UBC, did a good job on the roads.  Metro Vancouver, who administers Pacific Spirit Park, did a very poor job maintaining any of the sidewalks or paths under their jurisdiction.  As a regular year round runner who was out on the streets I can attest to the poor job our various civic administrations did keeping sidewalks, bike lanes, or pathways safe for pedestrians.

In the City of Vancouver the bylaws are clear: property owners are responsible for clearing sidewalks adjacent to their property.  Many of these property owners failed in their civic duty.  The evidence is clear to see throughout Point Grey where one finds ice paths in place of sidewalks along most streets.

In the UBC administrated residential areas the expectation and the legal framework place the responsibility to clear snow on UBC, not property owners. I explain in more detail below, but first let's look at UBC's response to a series of resident concerns over the past couple of weeks.

I am aware of several letters of concern sent from long term residents who live in different areas of the UBC administrated neighbourhoods.  Some of these letters made it to UBC's new president, Santa Ono.  Replying on behalf of the president, Michael White had this to say to one community resident (I've underlined one critical and incorrect portion of the message):
I’m responding on behalf of President Ono to your recent email regarding snow removal.
Thank you for bringing forward your concerns regarding snow and ice removal at UBC both on the campus and within the surrounding neighbourhoods. This winter has been uncharacteristically wintery with numerous bouts of cold overnight temperatures and snow events but with each event UBC crews have been dispatched to clear and salt main roadways, key campus walkways, the bus loop and approaches to the hospital. Crews have also been continually dispatched for the past week while the academic campus is dormant. 
      As with other municipalities in the region the responsibility for snow removal is a balance of the adjacent local property owners and local government crews - in the neighborhoods, the UNA contracts with UBC to clear the roads of snow and through their own contractor, the UNA clears certain paths.  As with other municipalities in the region this winter there remains significant snow on side streets, which is generally not cleared by municipal crews, and on sidewalks if the adjacent owner has not taken the appropriate steps to remove clear the walk. As the winter continues we will work closely with our UNA partners regarding neighbourhood coverage and we will continue to dispatch our UBC crews to tend to the major roads and walkways as per the attached map. We also continue to improve our forecasting information and upgrade our equipment to ensure that we can be cost effective and timely with our response to weather events. We will also work closely with the UNA to explore any opportunities for enhancing the snow clearing practices in the neighbourhoods. These efforts will help the UBC campus and the surrounding neighbourhoods remain passable and barrier free to the best of our ability during the remainder of the winter.
      As always I’m more than happy to discuss further and available to chat next week.
All the best,
Michael White, MCIP
Associate Vice President
Some time after Michael White sent his email to the resident the UNA updated its web site with a snow removal notice which read as follows (The UNA subsequently updated the notice to remove the line saying UBC & the UNA were filtering inquires): 
Both the UNA and UBC have been filtering inquiries regarding snow and ice removal on campus. The UNA wants to take this opportunity to clarify and address these concerns. As you are already aware, this winter has been uncharacteristically wintery with numerous bouts of cold overnight temperatures and snow events. With each event, UNA-contracted crews have been deployed to clear main sidewalks, letdowns and pathways within the neighbourhoods. UBC crews have also been dispatched to clear and salt main roadways within the UNA and UBC academic realm, in addition to key campus walkways, the bus loop and approaches to the hospital.    Similar to other municipalities in the Lower Mainland, the responsibility for snow removal is a balance of the local property owners and local government crews. As with other municipalities in the region this winter, there remains significant snow and ice on side streets, which is generally not cleared by municipal crews, and on sidewalks if an owner has not taken the appropriate steps to clear snow and ice from the path adjacent to their property.   The UNA will continue working diligently with contracted crews and UBC to proactively monitor and respond to the on-going weather conditions on campus. UNA staff would like to remind residents to stay safe and be extra careful when walking outside or driving. We also urge that building owners be extra vigilant and keep their sidewalks clear and salted/sanded. [retrieved from a cached webpage]

I have highlighted a segment of the UNA announcement that closely parallels Michael White's email as it contains a critically incorrect assertion concerning who is currently responsible for snow removal on sidewalks in the UBC administrated residential areas.

Prior to the UNA issuing its snow removal advisory (quoted above) resident Bill Holmes wrote to Michael White asking for clarification on the legal responsibly and framework for deciding who is in fact responsible for snow removal.

The question is: does the strata corporation have any responsibility for removing snow and ice from the sidewalks adjacent to the strata property? Section 8.04 of our leases makes the strata corporation responsible for keeping the public sidewalks adjacent to our property “reasonably clean from ice and snow during the times and to the extent required of an owner under the provisions of the University of British Columbia Regulations with respect thereto in effect from time to time”. I have not been able to find any UBC “Regulations” setting out the requirements. I would like to know whether such regulations exist and, if so, to obtain a copy. If there are no such regulations, then the answer is that the strata corporation has no responsibility (although we might voluntarily take steps, as we certainly don’t want anyone to hurt themselves on the adjacent sidewalk). I am aware that the UBC Building Operations web page on ice prevention and snow removal states that each strata is responsible for deicing and removing snow from sidewalks abutting their properties. However, that web page would not be considered a regulation. Moreover, it does not specify times and extents, as referred to in the leases. If there is no regulation, and hence strata corporations are not responsible for adjacent sidewalks, has the UNA undertaken through agreement with UBC to keep the sidewalks clear?

Through a subsequent series of communications it become apparent that UBC now fully understands that there is no current regulation and thus they are responsible for snow removal. On Jan 6th Michael White replied to an email on the legal responsibility question as follows:

You are correct that the leases make the strata corporation responsible for keeping the public sidewalks adjacent to the property reasonably clean from ice and snow.  You are also correct that there is no UBC regulation that sets out the requirements, however we are exploring a process to bring the lease requirement into effect.  In the interim, the UNA, through their own contractor clears the sidewalks and paths through parks in the neighbourhoods.  They prioritize the sidewalks first, then the paths.  The obligation to clear pathways within the property line of strata building remains the responsibility of individual stratas, as contemplated in the ground lease. 
Even though the UNA has not altered its snow removal advisory (in terms of their claim that stratas are responsible for snow removal) a senior member of the UNA staff responded on January 6th to a local area strata president with what is tantamount to an admission that UBC is solely responsible for all sidewalk snow removal except that which is within a strata's own property line:

Thank you for bringing the comments to our attention.  The UNA has been made aware today about the regulation issue, and will be working with UBC to have this issue resolved.  Rest assured, the UNA will continue with snow/ice removal and salting around the neighbourhood, and as we already have, increase resources as required.  We appreciate your understanding,

The long and short of all this is that responsibility for snow removal and maintenance falls to UBC until such time as a proper regulation is put in place.  Yet it is unclear how UBC will in fact implement a proper legal regulation.  The land leases vary from neighbourhood to neighbourhood in terms of which pieces of provincial legislation they reference (if they actually do explicitly reference legislation). At the very least any UBC regulation must be more than a blurb on a website.  As the Board of Governors of UBC is the legal entity entrusted by provincial legislation to manage UBC's fiscal and legal obligations it is reasonable to assume that an appropriate regulation would need the approval of UBC's Board of Governors. As UBC tries to find a way to create a regulation to compel stratas to take responsibility for snow removal, UBC's delegated ancillary, the UNA, will have to ensure sidewalks are properly cleared of snow and ice.

Here are a few related but less critical points that I raised in my letter to Michael White.

Dear Michael,
I am disappointed with this reworking of history that is being presented as the ongoing policy of UBC/UNA.  The response doesn’t really answer the resident’s questions.  Rather, it is a somewhat legalistic justification for inaction.  
First, you tell us the weather is uncharacteristic.  Yet, popular media sources say it’s not even in the the top ten of of tough winter conditions for Vancouver area. It’s essentially within the normal band of possible weather conditions for this region.  Thus, claiming a particularly harsh year tells us more about the way in which budgets have been cut back to provide minimal services to a set of conditions that are statistically unreliable.  I suspect we are witnessing the real time effects of the so-called no cost fire services download.  I was wondering how $800,000 of cost cuts without service reductions could be managed and, it would seem, we have an example before us today. 
 Second, this is not a municipal area.  UBC is the property owner.  And, despite a clause in the land leases that discusses snow removal there are no legal regulations to enforce or back up a provision that requires Strata’s to clear the roads or sidewalks. I would be curious to learn how UBC could, without proceeding through the Board of Governors, pass a ‘regulation.’  I note that recently the Building Ops snow removal page has been expanded (you can check my twitter feed for the details) to include a statement on UNA snow removal that is very close to the word structure of your reply to a resident.  While you may in fact be working close with your UNA partners, the truth of the matter is that it is UBC who is legally responsible, and that the UNA is merely a delegated advisory committee of the UBC BoG. 
Third, ever since I met Jim Taylor and Dennis Pavolich (when they set up the UNA) I heard at meeting after meeting about the services-plus model that UBC and the UNA was providing to residents and that we do not need responsible local governance because we get so much more here. But clearly we don’t as at every juncture UNA staff and UBC officials are constantly pointing out to us today how things are done in neighbouring municipalities and that our expectations are incorrect.  But to be frank, Michael, it is not our expectations that our incorrect, it is the publicity and efforts of UBC and it’s allies in governance who have spent years telling residents about the special over the top services that we are receiving when truth in fact is we are not even receiving services at the level of local municipalities. Expectations have been raised by UBC/UNA and the problem is that when you try to dial down those expectations by rationalizing service cutbacks people are reasonably upset and concerned. 
Finally, I would like to share my thanks with the contracting crews who seemed to take their individual initial yesterday to clear sidewalks in Hawthorn Place.  If I understood them correctly they had been told to restrict their clearing to the accessibility ramps at cross walks but they felt morally obliged to clear all icy paths they encountered.  That approach is to be complimented.  
Clearly if residents were more able to organize to clear the paths adjacent to our Stratas it would be a good thing.  But the problems were not simply related to paths abutting our Strata, but the entire network of walkways and roads within Hawthorn Place and Wesbrook Place (except for the commercial centre where it seemed contracting crews worked overtime to keep clear over Xmas). At the very least this should be taken as a learning opportunity for UBC, not a chance to correct any perceived misunderstandings by residents.    
If the snow removal was a project for a class on applied local governance this is how I would assess it: Snow removal was a fail this past month with some glimmers of excellence.  When the assignment was finally turned in, seriously past the deadline, it was accomplished at a very good B grade. Taking into account extenuating circumstances the notation for the assignment will read, "very poor start with a late in the day recovery. Ultimate action of combined UBC/Contractor teams were able lay down a path toward future improvements. Final grade C+” 
With best wishes for the new year and better performance during the next snow/ice storm,
Charles Menzies

With regard to claims that the snow fall is out of the ordinary the following graphic very nicely shows that 2016 snow fall as been very ordinary.