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Newton aldermen pass snow shoveling law

Posted by Sarah Thomas  March 22, 2011 09:03 AM

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Newton aldermen passed an ordinance Monday requiring residents to clear sidewalks of snow and ice within 30 hours of winter storms. During the law's two-year trial period, no fines or penalties will be assessed.

"This might be the longest meeting of the full board I've ever experienced," said alderwoman Deb Crossley, before the debate ended close to midnight. "But I support this measure because we will be using public policy as an expression of our values to make the city safe for all people. We'll be committing to this value with our labor, literally picking up our shovels to make it so."

The final vote was 18-6, with aldermen Ciccone, Lappin, Lennon, Salvucci, Shapiro, and Swiston opposed.

"I'm very gratified," said alderwoman Victoria Danberg, a member of the snow committee and one of the architects of the ordinance. "I didn't know how the vote would go, because I honestly thought there were intelligent arguments on both sides. But now we have an opportunity to look at how we're going to accomplish the goal of making the city safe."

The two-year trial will begin on Nov. 1 and continue to Nov. 1, 2013. During that time, residents will be expected to clear snow and treat ice for a 36-inch wide segment of sidewalk and handicap access ramps that abut their property within 30 hours. Residents who do not will receive letters of noncompliance from the city.

Those who wish to report a neighbor for noncompliance may do so by utilizing the city's 311 phone system. There will be no fines assigned during the trial. Residents who claim a physical or financial hardship that prevents them from shoveling snow may obtain an exemption from the city.

Before the vote, the language of the ordinance was changed by amendments to specify that residents should use reasonable efforts to clear sidewalks of snow and treat ice. The wording change was to clarify that residents will not be held accountable if the city's public plows or private contractors dump snow on a curb cut or sidewalk.

"We want people to shovel their sidewalks, but no family with small children can be expected to clear out the insane mountains of snow that were left on some people's property this year," said alderman Jay Harney, who brought photographs of snow piles left during snow removal.

Alderman Charlie Shapiro also suggested an amendment making it clear that homeowners would be protected from unintended financial consequences if someone injured on their property decided to sue. That amendment did not carry because, as alderman Ted Hess-Mahan said, residents were already protected by case law in such an instance.

"This amendment is a solution in search of a problem," Hess-Mahan said.

In the end, the amended ordinance won over a number of opponents, including alderman Brian Yates, who voted down a similar ordinance 15 years ago, and alderman Lenny Gentile.

"I had originally thought I would vote against it, but I approved of the amendments that softened the language," Gentile said. "I like that it's a two-year trial without fees, and that we've moved from it being a mandate to an expectation."

One who was not won over, however, was alderwoman Greer Tan Swiston. Despite being undecided until the very last minute, she eventually voted against the ordinance.

"My deciding factor was, though I would have been supporting it to encourage people to do the right thing, what I heard from a number of other people was an emphasis on this saving the city money," Swiston said. "If we can't afford the $3 million it will cost the city to remove the snow, it'll be a lot more expensive without the efficiencies of being done by one body, and that cost will fall on a smaller number of people."

Despite the lateness of the hour, a number of citizens, many of whom wore green "YES" badges in support of the ordinance, stayed to the end.

"I'm thrilled," said Maryan Amaral, who arrived at the meeting on her motorized scooter. "I've been supporting this amendment as an advocate for the disabled for over a year. To see it come to fruition for the people who need the sidewalks all year long is very exciting."

Sarah Thomas can be reached at sarah.m.thomas@gmail.com.

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