Watertown residents will be required to clear snow and ice from sidewalks in front of their homes within 24 hours of the end of a storm after the City Council passed the amendment to the City’s Snow and Ice Removal Ordinance. Under the new rules, residents face a fine for repeatedly not clearing sidewalks, but those will not be levied during the current winter.
The vote Tuesday night was 6-3, and came after more than two hours combined public input and discussion by Councilors.
Residents against the proposal brought up concerns about how the new rules would be enforced, potential liability, and even whether people should be required to remove snow and ice from sidewalks, which are owned by the City. They added that most people do shovel their sidewalks, so they don’t see the need for new regulations. Those in favor said uncleared sidewalks force people to walk in the streets, make it difficult for people with disabilities to get around, and said that only a few properties are not clearing snow and ice and the new regulations would help the City get the sidewalks cleared.
The new residential section of the Snow and Ice Removal Ordinance requires snow and ice to be removed from sidewalks in front of residential properties 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 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 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.” People will have to show documentation of their income level and/or disability.
Before the discussion City Manager George Proakis said that the City does not currently have enough staff to go out searching for violations after a storm, and would respond to complaints received about unshoveled sidewalks. He added that there are some areas that are not City owned but also not under private ownership. Watertown’s Department of Public Works already struggles to find enough contractors to help plow streets, and said it would be difficult to take on clearing of sidewalks.
Councilor Caroline Bays said she has supported a residential snow shoveling requirement for over 20 years. She has frequently been forced to go into the street when walking her dog. She added that she did not complain about scofflaws because no one was breaking the law.
“I still own a dog, I am still forced out into the street, and it is very scary as a dog owner,” Bays said.
Councilor Tony Palomba said he heard many concerns from the public and suggested that there be some exemptions be made for people with unusual properties which don’t allow them to comply with the 42 inch width, or where snow is piled up by street snow plows, such as properties on corners. There are also a few properties, including on Arsenal Street, where the sidewalks run along their property, but their entrance is actually on the street behind.
He also asked for the City to announce when the official end of the storm is so people know the deadline to clear snow. He also suggested the DPW look into whether they can clear sidewalks for people who have exemptions.
Councilor Nicole Gardner said she has seen children having to walk in the middle of the street because of snow on sidewalks, and she fears one will be hit. She added that the owners of properties where snow is never shoveled will not be shamed into doing the right thing.
“We need something for situations like that where there is a persistent, consistent lack of attention paid to what is required to create safety for our residents,” Gardner said.
Councilor Emily Izzo said at first she supported the idea of requiring sidewalks to be cleared in front of homes, but had a change of heart when she heard some of the concerns. She worried that the elderly would be the ones most adamant about complying with the regulations and they could injure themselves. Also, while an exemption prevents them from facing a fine, but does not solve the problem completely.
“If somebody is going to be walking, whether they have an exemption or not, doesn’t necessarily matter, it’s still going to be inconvenient if it’s not shoveled out,” she said. “It’s not going to matter if a person is elderly or not; it is still going to mean I will have to walk in the street.”
Councilor John Airasian also said he could not support the residential requirements.
“I understand the rationale behind it. I believe the goal is admirable. Looking back at the committee meetings and really thinking it through, given the limited resources and the liability concerns and some topics that are still uncertain, because of those reasons I don’t feel comfortable mandating people shovel their sidewalks,” Airasian said. “Rather, I would hope residents would continue to clear the sidewalks in front of their property and also look out for their neighbors who need help in doing so.”
City Attorney Mark Reich was asked about whether people would be liable after the passage of the ordinance if someone was injured walking on their sidewalk, either for shoveling, or not shoveling their sidewalks. Also, whether the City would be liable for putting in the requirement. Reich said he could not give legal advice on a hypothetical case. He added, however:
“The implementation of an ordinance does not, in itself, create or impute liability upon an individual. With respect to an individual who undertakes shoveling or action under this ordinance and sustains injuries, that would not be a liability for the City — the City would not be responsible for individuals who injure themselves.”
Councilor John Gannon said he wanted to prevent what happened to a schoolmate of his at the Browne School, who was hit and killed by a car when she walked in the street. He also noted that the proposal to have a residential requirement was brought forward by a group advocating for residents to stay in their home as they get older.
Watertown has other instances where new regulations were put into place and that led to change in behavior, Gannon said, including preventing private snow plowers from pushing snow into the street, and snow shoveling in front of commercial properties.
“It’s the same evolution for residents. We are among the last communities around us that don’t have this,” Gannon said. “It’s about encouraging behavior. Ordinances always encourage behavior. It may not change over night — that’s not what the concept of a regulation is. The first part of any regulation is not enforcement, it’s education.”
Councilor Feltner said she heard a lot of fear about what the consequences would be of passing the new regulations.
“I will say it makes me sad to hear a lot of fear, worry about there is going to be a team going after people, people that already diligently take care of their sidewalks. That is not the intent,” Feltner said. “Without having an ordinance and regulations in place then we can’t enforce that. I think of it like Zoning, animal control, taking care of pet waste, at least there is something on the books when you do have repeat offenders we can respond to that. It also does, I think, affect our culture and shows that we place a high value on pedestrian safety.”
Council Vice President Vincent Piccirilli said that when the residential shoveling requirement was recommended during the creation of Watertown’s Bicycle and Pedestrian Plan, it had broad support from parents with school age children, from seniors, from public transit users, from dog walkers, and residents who like to walk around town. He also noted that the City would not be out searching for violators.
“The Manager intends to take a gentle touch and intends to enforce this with a complaint driven process, which is what we do with the commercial (snow shoveling) ordinance,” Piccirilli said. “We will not be hiring a crew of code enforcement offices to patrol the streets after each snowfall. The great news is a great many water residents already shovel their sidewalks. This new ordinance intends to give us a means to compel those that don’t.”
Council President Mark Sideris said he could not support the ordinance because he saw too many flaws. He worries that people will be fined for only clearing a 38 inch-wide path, not the full 42 inches, for example. Also, he said he believes it does not directly target the biggest culprits for uncleared sidewalks.
“We have heard it many times tonight: the biggest scofflaws are the absentee landlords. I would have like to have seen an ordinance that went after them first before we went after some of the residents,” Sideris said.
The Council voted 6-3 for the amendment to the Snow and Ice Removal Ordinance requiring residential properties to be shoveled. Sideris, Izzo and Airasian voted against it. The Council unanimously supported the additional amendment calling for fines not to be enforced during the current winter to allow for public education and outreach about the new rules and regulations.