Newton’s snow evolution

Newton’s snow evolution

By Andreae Downs/Newton city councilor

In the winter of 2007, it looked like Newton could never get its sidewalks clear, much less find a way forward. We were faced with dozens of snowed-in corners and complaints of impassable walks; hundreds of letters to local lawmakers and the papers; and of course, thousands of snowflakes, thawing, freezing, and making safe passage impossible.

Newton briefly had a snow clearance ordinance in the early 1990s, but it was quickly rescinded after a bad winter, fears of shoveling- related heart attacks, and a flurry of voter rage at having to shovel.

To get momentum behind sidewalk clearing and the passage of a new effective snow clearance ordinance, Newton needed a broad-based coalition of allies. These allies included parent and walker Alicia Bowman (now Councilor), Councilor Vicki Danberg, a committee made up of the Council on Aging, local synagogue leaders, and parent-teacher organizations, and help from WalkBoston.

Our efforts were multi-pronged. We did hours of research, including 11 community surveys conducted by the local League of Women Voters. Liability issues were cleared up (Papadopoulos v. Target Corp). A matrix showing what surrounding communities do gave the then-Board of Aldermen (now a Councilor) an idea of the possibilities. Speakers addressed lawmakers’ fears. And sidewalk snow became a mayoral election issue.

The first ordinance passed in 2011 was a trial, which was extended because it didn’t snow that winter. The mayor then hired a star team in the Department of Public Works (DPW) to train the 90+ City contractors who plowed snow often onto the sidewalks in better snow management practices.

To support the success of the trial ordinance, our coalition compiled lists of volunteers to help those who couldn’t shovel (with an option for disabled and low-income neighbors). We also put together a list of contractors who included sidewalk clearing with driveway clearing. Meanwhile, we tightened up the ordinances for sidewalk snow removal in business districts, and beefed up police enforcement. Quickly, our village centers became more walkable!

The DPW team tracked compliance and reported to the City Council. After a few years, the trial ordinance became permanent. We then shortened the compliance time for shoveling after a storm and refined the warning system. But there was still no non-compliance fine. A fine was finally passed in 2019. The mayor’s office will mail violation warning letters to each non-compliant neighbor to give property owners a chance to find a contractor, if needed, to cover sidewalk clearing.

This winter, if it snows, we will evaluate how Newton’s new ordinance—now with teeth—works.

Research and policies are available at walkboston.org/snow

This article was featured in WalkBoston’s January/February 2020 newsletter.
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