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Subcommittee Sends Residential Snow Shoveling Bylaw to Town Council for Consideration

The bylaw would require all residential properties to clear snow from their sidewalks after a snowstorm; details must still be worked out.

The Town Council will consider making a bylaw requiring residents to remove snow from the sidewalk in front of their homes after the Public Works subcommittee approved the requirement by a 2-1 vote during a contentious meeting Tuesday night.

The bylaw, which right now has no deadline to shovel or penalty, will must be approved by the Town Council before it goes into effect.

Snow shoveling ordinances have been considered at least four times, and each time it was voted down before going to the Town Council. This year, the Commission on Disabilities requested a bylaw be passed to make it easier for the disabled, elderly and others can walk on sidewalks after a snow storm.

Town Council Vice President Steve Corbett brought forward a proposal, which would have required residential property owners to clear a 36-inch wide path the entire length of the sidewalk in front of their property within 24 hours of the end of a storm. Those that fail to do so could be fined $50 per storm.

The town already has an ordinance requiring private properties in business districts to clear their sidewalk.

Watertown would be far from the first community to adopt a residential snow shoveling requirement, Corbett said. There are now 22 communities in the Boston area that require residents to clear sidewalks.

"This policy is most appropriate in a densely settled, semi-urban community where people walk and use public transportation," Corbett said.

There may be more incentive, Corbett said, because the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court recently ruled there is increased liability if someone gets injured when a property owners "don't use reasonable care to maintain their property by clearing snow from the sidewalk."

Town Councilor Susan Falkoff, the one vote against the rule, said she used to support the idea of having a requirement for residents to remove snow, but she recently changed her mind.

She prefers focusing on educating people about why they should clear sidewalks in front of their property, and possibly finding a way to sell discounted shovels.

Several residents showed up to oppose the requirement. Gail Boyd said her property is on the corner, and there is no room in front of her home to put snow.

"Mandatory snow removal and threat of a fine is unfair and unreasonable," Boyd said.

Town Councilor Angeline Kounelis, who is not on the Public Works Committee, said she wants to see sidewalks cleared, but she does not like the idea of fining those who do not do it.

Resident Russ Arico said he has seen this proposed numerous times, and said the subcommittee should reject it.

"Forced shoveling creates more problems than it solves," Arico said.

Some communities with residential snow bylaws allow people to apply for exemptions, including if they are disabled, elderly, or if there is financial hardship.

Falkoff noted that in Cambridge the Public Works Department clears sidewalks of elderly who residents who can not clear their sidewalks on their own. In Watertown, however, the public works department does not have the resources to do that, said Public Works Superintendent Gerald Mee.

Perhaps scouts, middle or high school students or church groups could volunteer to clear sidewalks of the elderly and disabled, Falkoff suggested.

Town Council President Mark Sideris said he worries about enforcing such a bylaw by the Police Department.

Corbett said he wanted the subcommittee to vote on it to allow the full Town Council to discuss it, and if it approved, the Public Works Committee can discuss the details later.

Along with sending the residential snow removal ordinance to the Town Council to consider, the subcommittee also voted to have the Police Department encourage people to clear snow off sidewalks in their robocalls, and put out a newsflash.

John MacNeill December 13, 2011 at 12:46 PM
Municipal sidewalks? I wasn't able to locate any information on the Town's website, does anyone know if Watertown's residential sidewalks are owned by the town? It makes a difference. The SJC ruling doesn't seem to apply if the adjacent sidewalk isn't owned by the the property owner.
Edie B. December 13, 2011 at 02:07 PM
I would love to know the answer to this. After all, if I own the sidewalk in front of my house, wouldn't that give me the right to tear it up or alter it as I see fit? As absurd as that sounds, to then be required to keep it clear of ice and snow almost sounds as silly as being required to plow the street in front of my house. (Note that we maintain our sidewalks meticulously in the winter ... and we're good neighbors who run our snowblower the entire length of sidewalk in front of abutting homes. But when you think about the practice of clearing sidewalks, the ownership does seem to fall into a gray area.)
Peter O'Hardon December 13, 2011 at 02:31 PM
A better question is why Town Council Vice President Steve Corbett brought forward this proposal. He is already on the bubble for his premature (prior to extracting a sizable "expression of interest") support of the Walmart project. One can only assume this is yet another attempt to extort "non-traditional revenue" from the residents, along with cell towers, replacement trash totes and of course water and sewer fees.
Vinnie Dummerino December 14, 2011 at 01:11 AM
that is exactly what i was trying to point out to you and why the town's sidewalks will not be covered under homeowner policies but the home WILL be responsible if they clear the town's sidewalk and there is an accident. This is a very key issue and point and what I meant by the town is trying to dump the legal burden you you the homeowner never mind that there are just some many areas in east watertown where there is just no place to put the snow and several other factors. But the legal issue and the insurance issue is very big and real.
Vinnie Dummerino December 14, 2011 at 01:15 AM
Edie B is right on the money and it may take a class action suit against the town to stop the current bylaw, Corbett, and get a more sensible plan and solution being discussed, never mind all of the practical factors and concerns about such a senseless bylaw when it is logically examined as Edie has done above.

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