Shoveling out the street where you live

Rules for clearing sidewalks vary in area communities

By Calvin Hennick
Globe Correspondent / January 30, 2011

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With truckloads of snow already fallen this winter, and more likely to arrive over the next few months, homeowners may not be looking forward to digging out their sidewalks yet again. So, can they just skip it?

Depends on where they live.

A few area communities require property owners to clear snow and ice from any adjacent public walkways, according to a survey conducted last year by the Metropolitan Area Planning Council. But many others have no shoveling regulations on the books.

In Newton, business owners are required to clear sidewalks, but residents are exempt. The city’s Board of Aldermen has spent this snowy season debating whether to change that.

“We need to achieve safety for our pedestrians in our community, and this is one very important step in that direction,’’ said Ward 6 Alderwoman at Large Victoria Danberg, lead sponsor of the revised shoveling ordinance. “My goal is not to punish anyone or penalize anyone.’’

Danberg’s proposal would give residents 30 hours after a snowfall to clear a 36-inch path in front of their houses. The ordinance originally sought a $50 ticket for violators, but supporters are pushing for a two-year trial period that provides for warnings rather than fines.

Still, there hasn’t been a lot of traction for making things less slippery in Newton. The ordinance has been voted down by two committees. It’s before the board’s Finance Committee and could come before the full Board of Aldermen on Feb. 22.

Alicia Bowman, a Newton mother and pedestrian-safety advocate, said that without a requirement to shovel their walks, many Newton residents simply aren’t doing it.

“You wouldn’t leave toys in the middle of the sidewalk for people to trip on,’’ Bowman said. “Why do we think it’s OK to leave the snow?’’

Weston is a community without shoveling rules, but Town Manager Donna VanderClock said it hasn’t become a controversial issue there, probably because not many children walk to school.

In Arlington, where shoveling has been required for more than a decade, officials say the policy creates few problems.

“For the amount of snow we’ve received, the compliance seems to be fair,’’ said Adam Chapdelaine, the deputy town manager.

“Our primary focus is to gain voluntary compliance,’’ said Police Chief Frederick Ryan. “It’s a little bit of trying to legislate being a good neighbor.’’

Wrentham has no regulations requiring residents to shovel, but Police Chief James Anderson said snowy sidewalks haven’t created any major problems in his town.

“I actually think Wrentham is pretty good in terms of being friendly,’’ Anderson said. “I know a lot of people in town will look out for their neighbors, especially if they’re elderly.’’

Watertown Police Chief Edward Deveau said that, lacking a snow shoveling bylaw for homeowners, officials have tried to educate people on the importance of clearing their walks.

“We’ve definitely seen an improvement,’’ Deveau said. “We’re certainly nowhere close to 100 percent, but we’re getting a lot more compliance.’’

Watertown does require businesses to shovel, and officials have debated whether to extend the rule to property owners. Deveau said those efforts have always failed because of concerns about how the elderly and disabled would handle the requirement.

In Newton, similar arguments have not swayed Bowman. Supporters of the ordinance are organizing volunteers to help those who cannot shovel or afford to hire someone to do it for them, she said.

Besides, she said, “We don’t pass a house that doesn’t have the driveway done. The sidewalk is usually much smaller than that. We’re passing $4 million homes who can’t shovel.’’

Others, including Danberg’s colleague from Ward 6, say requiring residents to shovel is an undue burden, and that it should be the city’s job to clear the sidewalks.

“I don’t think it’s appropriate for the city to offload its responsibilities onto private citizens,’’ said Alderman at Large Charles Shapiro.

Shapiro said he is “a hundred percent for cleared sidewalks.’’ However, he favors a city fund, set up through tax increases or new fees, to pay for municipal snow removal.

“I actually believe,’’ Shapiro said, “that the reason you have a municipal government is that when you’re trying to accomplish a goal, you do it through taxes and fees.’’

Ward 1 Alderman Scott Lennon, who serves as the board’s president, said he also opposes the ordinance, but doesn’t favor new fees for snow removal. Instead, Lennon said, the city could shift its resources to include plowing sidewalks on the most important pedestrian routes.

“We should be looking at areas of public transportation,’’ he said. “We should be looking at school routes. We should be looking at village centers. I think if you improve those three areas throughout the city, it helps with walkability’’ all winter.

A ruling last summer by the state’s highest court found that businesses and residents are required to take reasonable steps to keep walkways clear of snow and ice, and safe for pedestrians, or face liability.

Calvin Hennick can be reached at

Digging it
Only a handful of area communities require all sidewalks to be cleared of snow. Many others had no shoveling regulations on the books as of last year.
Property owners subject to snow-removal policies
Brookline, Arlington, Natick, Marlborough
Commercial property owners only — Newton, Belmont
No sidewalk snow removal regulations: Watertown, Weston, Sudbury, Lincoln, Concord, Bedford, Acton, Littleton, Boxborough, Stow, Southborough, Hopkinton, Sherborn, Holliston, Medway, Franklin, Bellingham, Wrentham, Dover
SOURCE: Metropolitan Area Planning Council 2010 survey. Note: There was no information on 15 area communities