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Should Middlebury require homeowners to shovel sidewalks?

MIDDLEBURY — Middlebury residents are being asked to weigh in on the idea of instituting a new town ordinance that would require property owners to clear snow from their own sidewalks.
A few local residents — noting the selectboard’s ongoing efforts to contain the municipal budget — recently pitched the shoveling ordinance as a means of cutting costs and promoting more community spirit.
One of those residents, Patrick Ganey, moved to his Weybridge Street home this past October. He said he was surprised to find himself alone in shoveling his portion of the sidewalk following the first snowstorm of the winter. Ganey and his family had just moved here from Northfield, Minn., which has a shoveling ordinance.
When Ganey saw why he was the only one shoveling he wasn’t impressed with the alternative.
“The next day (after the storm) a town sidewalk plow came by and did a dreadful job of clearing the sidewalk, making my clear sidewalk an uneven obstacle course,” Ganey wrote in a Feb. 3 letter to Middlebury Town Manager Kathleen Ramsay. “As I walked to town over the next few weeks, I was surprised by the large number of pedestrians walking in the street to avoid the difficulty of traversing the sidewalk.”
So Ganey and some like-minded folks — including East Middlebury’s Ruth Hardy — are asking town officials to consider a new ordinance that would require citizens to clear the portion of sidewalk fronting their property following snowstorms. The selectboard is intrigued by the suggestion, to the extent that it is asking residents to fill out a survey to gauge support for a shoveling mandate.
“It seems like a good question to raise,” Selectwoman Susan Shashok said. “Do they want to take care of (sidewalk snow), or don’t they?”
Hardy recalled living in Madison, Wis., and being subject to the local shoveling ordinance.
“Everybody did it,” she recalled of the shoveling chore. “It is something you knew you had to do.”
People who were frail, elderly or on vacation would either pay a neighborhood teen or ask a neighbor to cover for them, Hardy noted.
The selectboard survey, distributed at town meeting last week, includes three options:
•  Institute a residential shoveling ordinance that would require homeowners to clear snow from the sidewalk that fronts their property. The town would continue to maintain downtown sidewalks and vacant sidewalks (those without residential frontage). This would save residents an estimated average of $2.40 on property tax bills.
•  Run the current sidewalk plow at its current level of service.
•  Ratchet up sidewalk plow service. Officials said many communities of comparable size to Middlebury have two or three sidewalk plows operating during the winter. Middlebury has 6.5 miles of sidewalk, around half of which does not front residences. Operating a second sidewalk plow for redundancy and faster service would add around $4.15, on average, to property tax bills.
Selectboard Chairman Dean George is also a member of the town’s public works committee, which has been studying the sidewalk plowing/shoveling issue.
He acknowledged there have been recent problems with the current sidewalk plow. The estimated cost of replacing the current machine: $120,000, with a trade-in value of $10,000 for the current plow. The current plow is on the replacement schedule for 2014-2015.
“It has had reliability issues,” George said. “Mechanically, it’s been a problem.”
Most town officials, at this point, have not warmed to a shoveling ordinance. Concerns raised by board members have included maintaining sidewalks in a uniform fashion, enforcement, liability and the process of tending to sidewalks that don’t abut residential property.
“The (public works) committee wasn’t really enthusiastic about it,” George said.
Neither are some of the survey respondents who wrote down some comments.
“Since the ‘vacant’ sidewalks are scattered around town, it would be difficult to reduce plowing much,” wrote one respondent.
“I walk all over town,” wrote another. “Currently, pet owners don’t even clean up after their pets on city sidewalks. It is unlikely that they would be responsible for shoveling, especially in a timely manner.”
But Ganey believes the town could consider the Northfield, Minn., ordinance as a template. That ordinance, among other things, requires property owners to clear sidewalks within 12 hours of a snowstorm. If the task is not performed within 24 hours of the storm, the public works department clears the snow and sends the property owner the bill.
Hardy hopes the town gives good consideration to a shoveling ordinance, which she suggested could be implemented on a trial basis in a few neighborhoods to see how it goes.
She added the effort to reduce property taxes cannot be accomplished through across the board cuts. The answer, she said, should include cutting programs and services “that can be filled in by other means.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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