Council Will Consider Requiring Residents to Remove Snow in Front of their Properties

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Watertown residents would be required to remove snow and ice from sidewalks in front of their homes if the amendment to the Snow Ordinance is approved.

The City Council will hold a public hearing on the proposed changes to the Snow and Ice Removal Ordinance on Tuesday, Jan. 9, Council President Mark Sideris said during his address at Tuesday’s Inauguration Ceremony. The meeting will be held at City Hall beginning at 7 p.m. Remote participation will be available.

Watertown already has snow and ice removal rules for commercial properties, but the changes to the Snow and Ice Removal Ordinance would add requirements to remove snow from sidewalks in front of homes.

The proposal requires snow and ice to be removed within 24 hours of the end of the snow, sleet or freezing rain. The area cleared must be 42 inches wide or, if the sidewalk is narrower, the full width.

The proposed Snow Ordinance includes fines for not clearing snow and ice from the sidewalk in front of the property. For “small residential properties” the first violation would get a written warning, a second violation gets a $50 fine, and $100 for a third and all subsequent violations in the same winter/snow season.

For all other residential properties, there is a written warning for the first violation, $100 for the second, and $200 for the third and subsequent violations in the same season.

There are exemptions for people “who are unable to meet the physical requirements of this section, particularly for low-income, elderly, or disabled residents, or for other unusual circumstances.”

At the Dec. 12 City Council meeting, City Manager George Proakis said he looked forward to the discussion of the residential snow removal requirement. He said there are some details to look at if the City is to implement the new rules.

“Keep in mind we have established a violation/penalty system here, and it’s going to take some work on the administration’s side to determine what is needed to actually do the enforcement in a system like this,” Proakis said. “I look forward to having more conversation with the Council about what the expectations are. Do you want us out there seeking violations or do you want us to do it on more of  a compliance basis.”

Another area that must be worked out is the areas of sidewalks in front of property that are not in front of a home and how they will be cleared.

“I would like to have a conversation about what may or may not be possible in a world where our DPW team is constantly seeking plow drivers and those to remove snow,” he said. “Those little pieces may or may not be possible.” 

The City Council agenda with links to participate remotely will be posted here.

14 thoughts on “Council Will Consider Requiring Residents to Remove Snow in Front of their Properties

  1. I encourage people to attend this Council Meeting and express how this ordinance may affect your particular property. As I mentioned at a prior snow ordinance meeting, there are many areas that can’t easily comply with these proposed rules. There are people who do not have the green strip adjacent to their sidewalks and, therefore, have limited space to put the shoveled snow.

    In some cases people have high rock walls next to sidewalks. They can’t possibly throw the snow up over the walls, especially if we have a number of storms and the snow has not melted. The same scenario exists if those having no green space already have high snow banks on the side of the walks where they were forced to place the snow during each storm.

    There are other cases where we may have shoveled and then plows come along and push the snow back on the sidewalks. I would suggest taking pictures once you have shoveled so that you have proof you did the job and it was undone by snow plows.

    Most people try to clear their walks quickly, but sickness, being away from home and other situations could occur that prevent that from happening. We can’t always rely on those who have a business of snow plowing as their equipment could break down or the amount of snow is so huge that they can’t remove the snow as quickly as they’d like. Hopefully, considerations of those situations will be taken into account before fines are levied.

    I don’t know if the current proposed rules provide the details for these situations or so many others that are not the norm in Watertown. You need to address your own situations so that you are not subject to fines going forward if/when the ordinance is enacted.

    • Joan,

      Thank you for following this issue in your usual thorough and thoughtful way. I have not been diligent at all in this matter.

      All that I have is a series of questions and observations:

      1. What precipitated this potential ordinance? Is there a major sidewalk clearing problem in Watertown? If there is, where can I find the data that supports this?

      2. Who initiated this potential ordinance?

      3. I just found this on the City website about the City’s responsibility for snow removal:

      Why do you fill up my driveway with snow?

      The City’s job is to keep the streets and sidewalks free of accumulating snow for safety and emergency access. Unfortunately, as a result of snow plowing, snow can be deposited into Resident driveways. The City does not endeavor to fill up driveways, but it can be a side effect of the efforts to keep the streets and sidewalks safe for traffic. Please remember the City employees are only doing their jobs so that residents can safely use the streets and sidewalks. Please see the Winter Snowstorm Tips Tricks for ways to avoid the “second shovel”.

      I don’t see “Winter Tips and Tricks” on this page. Do you?,storage%20location%20for%20your%20snow

      4. Sidewalk conditions:
      Many of the sidewalks in my neighborhood are broken or not level, some having two slabs sloping into each other. Even if you shovel, those indentations fill with melted snow and those puddles refreeze, causing slip hazards. There’s nothing that can be done to eliminate this problem, short of the City coming to fix your sidewalk. Ice melt doesn’t work with that thickness of ice.

      5. I’ve noticed that some snowy conditions are best “treated” by leaving snow on the sidewalk for traction. I’ve never figured out the magic formula for when this is an appropriate strategy, but I’ve had neighbors who knew how to get this just right. Otherwise, if snow is shoveled, a layer of black ice occurs, many times not visible to people trying the traverse your sidewalk. In these conditions, would residents be penalized for not shoveling? Who decides when this is appropriate?

      I found these shoveling safety tips put out by the Michigan Blue Cross Blue Shield. Do we, or should we, have something like this distributed before the winter, when residents will possibly over-extend themselves for fear of a fine:

      Included in this article are their warnings for what health conditions they suggest you do not attempt snow shoveling:

      If you have any of the following conditions (or a family history), talk to your physician before shoveling snow:
      • A history of heart problems, heart disease or previous heart attack
      • Previous experience with back problems or asthma
      • High blood pressure
      • High cholesterol level
      • Past history of smoking or are a current smoker
      • Lack of daily, dedicated physical activity

      Again, I appreciate that the City is looking into this safety issue, but if I could find more data to back up their decisions, it would be helpful.
      Thanks for keeping us in the loop on this issue.

      • Hi Linda,
        I’ve been raising many of these issues with the Council committee on Rules and Regs (or whatever its name is). I think they feel the need to do something, but it’s bogged down in committee. Move it on the Council as a whole and see what the people think.
        I shovel, as do most if not all my neighbors. I wish everyone would. So, I support an ordinance, just not its enforcement.
        What I mean is that there are so many what-if-this situations and what-about-that occurrences that it’s almost impossible to enforce fairly. I shoveled twice yesterday before dark, but still woke up to more snow. I was technically “out of compliance”, yet I shoveled twice.
        Here’s my solution: the Town should issue its ordinance, but levy fines on only those property owners who show no sign of complying. Leave small and occasional infractions out of it. If you’re trying, you pass. If you’re not, you pay.

  2. For once, I agree with everything that Joan Gumbleton said (I hope no one falls off their chair). First, this kind of ordinance is asking A LOT of every resident; it seems to favor walkers over homeowners in a way that’s out of balance. Second, as Joan points out, there are many residences where such a requirement is difficult or impossible to comply with.

    Putting my money where my mouth is: the sidewalk in front of my house is always plowed quickly by the snow removal service that I hire (I hope they come on Sunday!). But many others don’t hire such services and such an ordinance would place a significant physical burden on them…. perhaps forcing them to spend money to have the sidewalks shoveled for them.

    I simply disagree that we need such an ordinance in Watertown, for me it’s going too far.

  3. People are, for the most part, already trying to keep their sidewalks clear as best they can.
    In many storms, especially the bigger ones, it’s virtually impossible to get through the snow on the sidewalks because the plow trucks shove all the wet, packed, filthy road snow there.
    They sell Watertown out to all these developers, take all our tax money on top of it, and now want to ticket citizens if they don’t personally keep public, town-owned sidewalks clear of snow and ice?

  4. AMENDMENT XIII US Constitution

    Section 1.
    Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.

    Unless the City intends to pay homeowners for cleaning the city’s property.. namely the sidewalk, any such ordinance violates the 13th Amendment of the United States Constitution’s prohibition of involuntary servitude. The property belongs to the city. It’s the city’s responsibility to clear it of snow, not the homeowner. Let them stop wasting money on unnecessary nonsense and use it to clear the snow..

    • Wow! That’s quite a conflation!

      Is the writer suggesting that his tax money be spent by the town to clear each and every sidewalk?

      Most people clear the sidewalks in front of their houses because they are able to and think of their neighbors as well as themselves.

      Surely there must be a solution that will take care of properties that cannot be cleared by their owners. If all parties are reasonable, we can cope.

  5. I have sent info to the council and city management multiple times regarding the Ann Arbor, Michigan approach to snow removal as well as Rochester, NY’s approach where residents pay about a buck per foot of frontage for the season and the city plows the sidewalks if there’s over 4” of snowfall. Surprise – no one responded! The Snow Buddy report is a very worthy read. Please check it out.

    The city, the state, and the Feds with their allocation $$$ mandate complete streets for all transportation needs (pedestrians, bicycles, scooters, skateboards, buses, cars, trucks) yet snow removal rules/fines regarding city-owned sidewalks are now being foisted on residents. These sidewalks, aka “pedestrian transportation corridors” are not resident-owned property but city-owned property. Now we’re mandated to give the city our free labor or be fined? And let’s discuss liability issues. If someone hits an icy patch and falls on our city streets – who do they sue? The city or the homeowner or both?

    I believe most residents try to do their best as good neighbors. This ordinance is overreach on the part of the city. Add-in the fact that Watertown can not even find folks to plow streets at $140 an hour. Cities are offering bonuses and contract guarantee to plowers – snow or no snow – to attract plow drivers. Yes, it’s seems to be a desperate situation.

    For the record, we always shovel out a path along our property only to be plowed in again and again. Bruce and I have no sidewalk, no curbing, no berm thus plows push all the snow along our property knocking out railroad ties and on the “non-existent sidewalk”. To dig out, we can be fined for throwing snow into the street. Well if you want snow to melt so you can widen your “non-existent sidewalk” to a 42” path isn’t it logical to toss some out into the street everyday when the sun is high so it will melt?

    The cadre of student community service volunteers at the ready to help folks shovel out is an urban myth. The unpaid or paid the numbers are not there. The Recreation Department has tried it’s best. Right now they have 78 requests and 10 volunteers. Also, reality check folks – if students are of working age, many have a part-time job.

    Didn’t the schools buy small plows to clear their walkways and parking lots? If so, couldn’t the range of plowing be expanded and a program tested out?

    Like so many other issues in town, this proposed ordinance needs a do-over. Time for councilors to get back to the streets for some practical and common sense input. Please note, I haven’t even touched on the deplorable street and sidewalk conditions around town and our small residential lots which makes snow removal difficult and snow-blowing or plowing extra costly, if you can even find someone.

  6. I think it’s a good idea to make property owners shovel snow in front of their places within a day after it snows. That way, people can walk on sidewalks without worrying about slipping and hurting themselves. But I also think that it’s not fair to make the residents do it. A lot of the most economically challenged residents are renters who don’t have shovels, time, or strength to clear snow. They shouldn’t have to pay for something that might otherwise be considered normal maintenance, that falls on the property owners to either do it themselves or use some of the money they make from rent to hire a service.
    And I think that there should be an exception for property owners who live on the premises who are too old or sick to shovel snow. Some property owners are elderly or disabled and can’t handle the snow. They shouldn’t get fined or punished for something they can’t do. The ordinance should create a fund that allocates some of the existing property taxes collected to providing that service for the elderly and disabled.
    So, I support the ordinance, but I also think it should be amended to be a fair and flexible solution for different people and situations. By making the property owners responsible and giving a break to those who need it, the ordinance would work better for everyone. Thanks for listening.

    • A tax on a tax solution, great way Josh to be talking out of both sides of the mouth here for and against, yeah that works! How the way its always been done “neighbors helping neighbors” No Tax, No Fines, just good old home family values, try it you might like it! I do

  7. In the 15 years I have lived in Watertown, I have been amazed that the city has no mandatory snow clearance ordinance. Having been a homeowner in Boston’s South End Historic District for more than thirty years, I was used to complying with the city’s snow clearance ordinance, which required homeowners and landlords to clear their sidewalks after a snowfall or be fined. No excuses. No list of loopholes. Neighbors complied because that is what neighbors do. An elderly lady lived across the street from me. I shoveled for her and others did as well. She was never neglected or at risk of being snowed in.

    One year, one of my neighbors in the middle of my block could not be bothered to comply with the ordinance. I fell in front of his/her residence, fracturing my ankle on three planes, requiring it to be surgically repaired with pins and plates, resulting in months in a cast and months of physical therapy. Oh, I still had to arrange for my sidewalk to be cleared. Because of the ordinance and my neighbor’s failure to comply, I had a cause of action.

    As an older lady without a car, I am frequently forced to walk in the street because residents do not clear their walks. It is more than infuriating that pedestrians have to risk falling on uncleared walks or walk in the street, where drivers treat pedestrians as nuisances to be harassed, and where drivers frequently make sport of driving through puddles in the road gutters to splash pedestrians, signaling their fun by giving the ole digital salute.

    There is something very wrong when pedestrians are treated like second-class citizens challenged by uncleared walkways, forced to scale snowbanks at intersections, and wade through intersection lakes, while the drivers of pollution belching behemoths enjoy travel on roadways cleared to bare pavement. Drivers and pedestrians both pay property taxes, after all.

  8. There is no perfect way to handle our New England weather and its challenges. Recognizing that pedestrians have issues navigating the snow, in an ideal world it would be nice to know that everyone is responsible for doing what most people have always done as a courtesy, clear the snow at their residences. We have a law in place for businesses and some of them didn’t comply with the City mandate for them to clear spaces in front of their locations. Did the City go after these businesses? If so, who in the City is responsible for this duty?

    We all know that there are people who don’t think the same in this conflicted world. Some care more than others. Some help their neighbors and some don’t. It’s impossible to change human nature. We hope the majority are in the caring category. When I came to Watertown many, many years ago, the community feeling was the draw. Neighbors knew each other, respected each other, weren’t anxious to be ‘Karens’ wanting to tattle on their neighbors, and were willing to help each other out.

    I would like the City to go out and actually see who cleared up after this storm. I didn’t see a lot of uncleared sidewalks and there are many different sidewalk configurations that make it difficult, if not impossible, to develop a regulation that isn’t going to be an undue burden on tax paying residents or City employees to enforce fairly.

    Let’s not regulate the hell out of Watertown as Cambridge, Belmont and other cities do. Let’s find other ways to deal with this issue. Maybe City leaders can send notices to those who consistently don’t clear their walks suggesting that if this doesn’t happen that laws will be put in place in the future and designating fines. Suggest they be good neighbors. Sometimes the carrot approach is better than the stick.

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