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.