Residential Snow Shoveling Requirement Approved by Council

Print More

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.

New Rules

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.

Council Discussion

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.

13 thoughts on “Residential Snow Shoveling Requirement Approved by Council

  1. This comment was submitted by Linda Scott:

    This will be brief. It’s In regard to the passage last night of the snow removal ordinance.

    Last night’s decision to “regulate” snow shoveling seemed like a no-brainer. But that’s what a lot of nuisance ordinances and laws look like on the surface. The ACLU lists multiple examples of how “nuisance laws” are fraught with unintended consequences.

    I too want the sidewalks in Watertown cleared of snow and our kids and adults safe, but here’s the problem: this particular ordinance is based on a faulty premise. It goes something like this: One dog in Watertown bites a person, therefore all dogs in Watertown must wear muzzles.

    I applaud the effort, but will it be more of a distracting nuisance rather than an effective method of making our streets safer? I hope it won’t be the former, but I’m pretty sure it will. Here’s why: this ordinance is not backed up by any data, which the Council hopes to aggregate after the fact. It’s sort of like accusing a person of a crime, without first gathering evidence.

    My own personal experience of ”aging in Watertown” is that the only time I’ve fallen (and broken my wrist) was on a summer night on a Watertown sidewalk that was badly in need of repair. That sidewalk, shoveled, would be the same trip hazard, but this year-round sidewalk safety problem was not discussed.

    Our City Manager, George Proakis, listed all of the pitfalls to enforcing this ordinance, the most obvious of which was no personnel to do the job, but six of our councilors persisted, insisting that this ordinance, warts and all, would eventually solve this problem…maybe.

    Our City Council President and two of our councilors (John Airasian and Emily Izzo), “broke from the pack” with a more measured and nuanced view of this…do the research. Rule one: Do no harm.

    And based upon real data the City currently has, the City simply doesn’t have the manpower to adequately enforce this. Mark, John and Emily argued, not that there should be no ordinance, but that the City do the actual research to do it right…what a concept!! Let’s hone in on and define the problem. That way the City will require far fewer resources to solve this issue.

    Councilors, I have no doubt that you’ve spent a lot of time and effort on this ordinance. I have no doubt that the residents supporting this ordinance were sincere, as were those opposing it, by the way.

    We have a new person hired as an analyst. His job is to gather data for the City Council. He could use the new 311 system as well as other methods to define the problem. Why not start using him for something like this? How would we break this down?

    Snow Removal “Problems”

    Business/Industry and residential (in this category in City or out of City owners)?

    What are the most concerning spots and neighborhoods?

    What streets are most concerning?

    Are there individuals that are consistent offenders?

    Define the bulk of the problems. (Remember, most of us are already in compliance).
    Send targeted letters to a whole street, for instance, where multiple problems are identified. Have the courtesy to send targeted notices out in multiple languages, explain to them that their company, neighborhood, street or they have been identified as being unsafe by the City, due to observations and complaints filed about 24 hour snow removal from streets, etc. Educate them. Then watch and re-evaluate.

    This effort will require far fewer City resources and not unnecessarily involve private records, like personal tax forms to be shared with the City and stress out seniors. You might find, for instance, that many seniors have already made arrangements with neighbors, etc. to help them out. This ordinance could potentially give people an “out” by making them an exception to the rule, causing more sidewalk problems than fewer.

    Councilors, right now by passing this ordinance you’ve been able to say to your constituents “I’ve done something”. Wouldn’t it be even better to be able to say, “I’ve solved something”?

  2. Wow!
    As a resident on Watertown Street in Watertown, I can remember snow storms dropping a foot or more of snow in our area and the constant parade of speeding snow plows battling the snow in the street and throwing the snow repeatedly on our sidewalk as we tried to stay ahead of the street plowing activity. I yearn for the luxury of living on a side street that is plowed only once during a storm. Staying ahead of the snowfall and the plow deposits must be an easier task on less traveled paths.

    Occasionally a miracle would appear in the form of a City of Newton sidewalk snow plow! The plow would attack the sidewalks in Nonantum and then plow the sidewalks in the town of Watertown near vital commerce, so Newton residents could continue to walk through Watertown to the Stop and Shop for groceries and the CVS for prescriptions during storms. It was nice to reap the benefits of Newton’s City services.

    As a 77 year old resident living on busy Watertown Street with an 88 year old husband we continue to manually shovel our City sidewalk so our neighbors can move safely across our property to access essential services. And… we even love and empathize with our dog-walking neighbors.

    We have a very wide sidewalk, so clearing our walkway measuring 42” across without shoveling snow into the street will be a challenge. The snow on our walkway is generally very heavy with highway treated snow thrown from the street and packed by human traffic before we can shovel.

    We will do our best to clear our snow within 24 hours for the benefit of our neighborhood, but it may be that we will have to accept the punishment that Watertown stipulates. Or…maybe Newton will help us out when we fail to meet Watertown’s standards.

    I do yearn for a fleet of Watertown sidewalk plows to come to our rescue. Maybe some day…
    Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow…

    Lenore Gibson

  3. At the meeting it was pointed out that you can’t go after scofflaws who don’t shovel unless there is an actual law to scoff at. I suspect that in reality only the worst offenders will run afoul of the ordinance. For the rest of us, who make a good faith effort, the impact will be minimal except for being able to walk or bike or push a stroller or use a walker or a wheelchair more safely.

  4. The City should set the example and fix itself before requiring this of residents. The municipal lot in Watertown Square never has its sidewalks shoveled (on both the Spring and Church St sides). It’s even worse given the slope on Church St.

  5. The town can not even go after all those that shovel the snow back onto the street. Even if you call to report it while it is happening, nothing is done. I’m not talking about once the storm is done and people are trying to help it melt. I’m talking about it is still snowing and people are just tossing it back into the street. The roads end up covered in snow again, and cars skid and slide. Don’t get me wrong either. Out police have enough on their hands already without having to deal with these complaints too.

  6. What about the sidewalks along the SIDE of a house? Many properties are corner lots and I’ve seen many that don’t bother with shoveling the front or the side. Will this be enforced?

  7. I agree with Leslie Horst: I am glad for the ordinance and think those of us who shovel regularly will benefit and not be harmed and people who don’t, or don’t know how to shovel will perhaps learn what to do. There are people who don’t shovel, or barely give a shovel’s width of a “path.” It’s like walking a tightrope. There are those who clear in front of their house, but not toward their neighbor’s and leave piles of snow across the sidewalk. Walking is so difficult in the snow anyway, at least grace us with a clear way to walk–and don’t forget to shovel a way out to the corner crosswalks so we don’t have to try to find a driveway or climb out over drifts of snow and ice. Plain old sand on ice would be nice, too. Do remember, there is a community benefit behind clearing sidewalks for our neighbors.
    barbara ruskin

  8. The anticipated problem is the fair implementation of this new ordinance. The City Manager commented at the Council Meeting that there are many details to be considered, especially with what department will be tasked with checking the streets for offenders, dealing with a number of issues, tracking violations and monitoring the whole program. The details have yet to be figured out.

    I think our fear with this new ordinance is that they aren’t allowing for exceptions due to so many differences in our properties. Some people don’t have a 42-inch walk, don’t even have a green space next to their walk. Others don’t actually have a defined front walk or have a huge wall where they can’t throw the snow over the wall, or have very small front yards to pile up the snow after numerous storms. Piling up snow on the side of current sidewalks has been their only option and it hasn’t caused problems. Some people on corner lots try to keep openings for crosswalks only to have snow plows constantly pushing the snow back there. Should they be responsible for that area? What can people now do if they can’t clear the total width of their walks?

    From my observations over the years, most people are responsible and clean their walks as best they can. We will have to wait for more details to see if it will be possible to appeal if fined for not clearing our own walks due to unforeseen circumstances. We could be sick and not able to do it within the 24-hour period. We could be away on vacation. If someone hires a professional to do their walks and they get sick or their equipment breaks down, can these unpredictable issues be resolved without a big hassle?

    It will be interesting to see how all of the issues are addressed going forward. We’ll need personnel to go out and find the scofflaws each storm, to process the fines and be sure they are collected, to keep data to see if they are repeat offenders, and to, hopefully, provide relief for people who for some reason couldn’t clear the paths for a storm are handled. Will there be some way to appeal a fine? How complicated will that be for the individual and the city? In many areas we are adding to staff in city hall and I fear that we are going to break the budget and then increase our taxes for all this support.

    I would suggest each person take before and after pictures of your walks for each storm. It will show what was there, what was removed and possible effects of the snow plows pushing back snow after you’re done. Be proactive in your efforts to protect yourselves.

  9. As a matter of courtesy and safety, I always clear the sidewalk and throw down a helping of snow melt in front of my house.

    I don’t expect to do anything that would get me fined, but in the event of unforeseen circumstances, and either neglect to do so (or wrongfully cited), under this ordnance, will there be an appeals process and what would it be?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *