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What happens if we don’t shovel?

Jan 11, 2012   //   by Rory Gill   //   All Posts, Condominiums, Real Estate  //  9 Comments

In Massachusetts, this snowless winter has given us a reprieve from the labor of shoveling and snowblowing, but inevitably winter will show up at our doorsteps.  Then, we will surely have to clear them out.  But what happens if you don’t shovel out the sidewalk in front of your condo?

As you know, condo life is often an adventure in communal living and responsibilities.  When you screw up or shirk a duty, your neighbors will suffer the consequences, too.  In the case of snow removal, the whole condo will likely share in the penalty – a fine to the city.  If you and your neighbors are especially lazy and avoid shoveling for days, the bill can add up – up to $200 each day for snowed-in sidewalks.

What gives the city the right to penalize your laziness, and how do they enforce it?  Let’s start with the basics – the sidewalk is (usually) publicly owned.  Despite some neighbors’ clever attempts to keep your dog from doing its business on “their” piece of sidewalk, they don’t own it – the city does.  To keep this pedestrian space open, many cities and towns, including Boston, have tried to get you to shovel in the winter by threatening a fine.  That threat, however, didn’t have much teeth.  If you refused to pay, the municipality would need to take you to court.  Court action wasn’t really worth the hassle, and the cities knew that.  So, even though mandatory shoveling rules existed, enforcement was not aggressive in most places.

That all changed mid-winter two years ago.  The Commonwealth passed a new law that finally gave some bite to municipal fines.  If the town accepts the conditions of the law and provides you with the right to a hearing, you’d better pay the fine.  Why?  Unpaid tickets – with late fees and interest – will now get tacked on to your property tax balance.  If you don’t pay up then, you’re facing a property lien or worse.  True, nobody’s likely to foreclose on a tax lien for $200, but you’re very likely to lose that money – again, with fees and interest – upon resale.

So far, my long-winded explanation of the snow shoveling rules make sense if you’re a single family property owner.  What about condo owners?  In most cases, the condo association owns the land and will be the target of the city’s collections.  If nobody shovels, you’ll likely end up with an unhappy trustee receiving the ticket.  That leads me to some tips for trustees:

  • Make it clear who’s responsible for shoveling.  Getting it shoveled in the first place will avoid the ticket.
  • Add a rule to the bylaws penalizing those who shirk their duties by making them reimburse the association for the fine.  Just like the State did, give some teeth to the rules by making unpaid penalties part of the condo fee balance.
  • If you use a property management company, make it known to the city.  They sometimes have the option of going after them, too.
  • If you contract for snow removal, try to negotiate reimbursement by the service company if you get fined for their failure to clear the sidewalk.
  • Know what the specific rules are in your city.
Each city and town differs in its exact rules (some have none).  Look up yours.  Boston has set the following specifics:
  • A path of 42″ must be cleared (to allow for wheelchair travel).
  • It must be done within 3 hours after the snow stops falling or sunrise, whichever is later.
  • Fines vary by zoning: Residential areas less than 16 units pay $50 per day.  Residential areas of 16+ pay $100 per day.  Commercial zones pay $200 per day.
  • Unhappy neighbors can report you.
So, don’t be lazy or disorganized.  Shovel your sidewalk.
Next time, I’ll share with you what happens when somebody falls on your unshoveled sidewalk.  Until then, thanks for reading.
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