and the
Citizens Economic Research Foundation

Barbara's Column
December #1

Look out for sidewalk police in Marblehead this winter
by Barbara Anderson

The Salem News
Wednesday, December 6, 2006

This week, the first snow fell and vanished. But Marblehead is preparing for real winter.

Town Meeting voted to select a committee "to study the feasibility of a by-law in which the residents of the Town would be responsible for clearing snow and ice from sidewalks abutting their property."

Fortunately, I don't have a sidewalk abutting my property. In my neighborhood, everyone walks on the road. Even a block away, where there are sidewalks, walkers avoid them because they have trees growing in the middle of them or tree roots forcing them upward.

I attended the Sidewalk Committee meetings anyhow, for fun. My first question: Can you get rid of these trees which are a hazard all year 'round? Not that I want them to; I just like to be annoying. Committee members admitted they don't know what to do about the trees.

But most of the committee members had already made up their minds what to do about the snow -- force everyone in town with an abutting sidewalk to shovel it or else!

Or else what?, inquiring minds wanted to know.

Well, a fine would be good, but "unfortunately," a state law limits such a fine to $10.

Hmm, pay a $10 fine or pay the chiropractor? Easy decision, for those of us who don't shovel. But how would the police who are issuing the citations know if there was a sidewalk under the snow in my front yard?

To its credit, the Police Department wasn't enthusiastic about taking on this project, probably preferring to concentrate on teen drugs and drinking, domestic violence, break-ins, speeding cars, etc.

Another concerned citizen wanted to know what suddenly created the need for this commission? "Ed" asked how many people have been injured while walking on the roads after a snowstorm.

No one knew of anyone who'd been hurt. But it could happen!

How about compared to the number of people with bad hearts who could die while shoveling?

Well, people who can't shovel can pay someone else to do it for them, we were informed. (Marblehead has a lot of people with too much money, who say things like this.)

Sure, years ago we would pay neighborhood kids a few dollars to shovel the walk or driveway. But now we can't match their allowances; and what if some elderly or handicapped people can't afford to pay a young entrepreneur or a snow removal company?

No problem. The schools have a program that sends kids out to do the shoveling free for needy people. On snow days, when they don't even go to school?

My friend Laurie called the School Department, which said it once had such a program but wasn't sure it was still available.

Hmmm, count on kids to shovel your sidewalk or pay a fine. If the kid doesn't show up, will the School Committee pay it?

And show up when? How soon after the snow stops falling? How many times as the snow falls some more? What about showing up again after the snowplow goes by, covering the just-cleared sidewalk?

Laurie lives on West Shore Drive, with a very long abutting sidewalk, up against a wall. If she were to shovel it, the plows would soon cover it again. How many times in a snowfall would she have to throw snow and ice chunks over her wall?

What if you are out of town when it snows? If you can afford it, you can hire a company on retainer; but how many private plows are there in town, and can they cover the entire community in the mandated time? Seems to me they are hard-pressed to get their existing clients' driveways plowed out quickly.

An opportunity for start-up snow-removal companies! -- that will have to hire illegal immigrants just like so many other small service businesses. Can we ask shovelers for their green cards, or is that "racial profiling"?

Some of the Sidewalk Committee members are concerned about the handicapped who cannot traverse snowy sidewalks in their wheelchairs. What about the handicapped who cannot shovel their snow? Well, there can be an exception made for them.

So people in wheelchairs will be tooling along the shoveled sidewalks until they get to an exempted sidewalk; and then what?

Most important question, from Laurie and others: What about liability? The sidewalks belong to the town, not the property owners. If the bylaw passes, and sidewalks not properly shoveled, does the property owner become liable for injuries? The committee didn't know, but thought that the owner could win in court if sued.

Wonderful. And who pays the lawyers?

And if one counts on the supposed school service, can the injured party sue the School Department if the student doesn't do a good job?

Do other communities have a snow removal bylaw? Answer: Cambridge has one. Sure, and it's also a nuclear-free zone.

Any towns like us? "Yes, Swampscott, but it doesn't enforce it."

Final question: And what does that tell you?

I think I have a solution for all this. It's called, wait a while and let the snow melt. Until then, stay home, or do what most people in Marblehead do anyhow -- drive.

Barbara Anderson is executive director of Citizens for Limited Taxation. Her syndicated columns appear weekly in the Salem News and other Eagle Tribune newspapers; bi-weekly in the Tinytown Gazette; and occasionally in the Lowell Sun, Providence [RI] Journal and other newspapers.