Sidewalk Committee To Look At Shoveling Issue

February 1, 2012

in Business Matters,News,Woodstock

This article first appeared in the January 19th, 2012 edition of the Vermont Standard.

By Eric Francis
Standard Correspondent
WOODSTOCK – Roughly one in four homeowners within the Village of Woodstock have a responsibility that they do not share with the other residences around them: namely, the obligation to shovel off any snow that falls upon the segment of the Village-owned sidewalk that traverses their property.
It’s not just a neighborly thing to do, it’s a legal obligation enshrined in a long-standing Village ordinance that even provides for a potential $75 fine if a homeowner doesn’t get their section of sidewalk cleared within 24 hours of the end of a snowstorm.
Although actual instances of fining people are few and far between, “Some people are just mad that they have to do it,” noted Woodstock Village Trustees Chairman Candace Coburn, who said she “gets it” when it comes to the complaints.
“People have very valid points about why they don’t like the current system,” Coburn noted. “One person said, `We don’t mind going out the first time and we don’t mind going out the second time but when it’s like the fourth and fifth time in one storm and the street plow has just pushed it all back on the sidewalk…’”
The sidewalk ordinance is one of the reasons that business owners can be seen scurrying out en mass with shovels and brooms each time the flakes start to fall along Central and Elm Streets but these days it stands as something of an anachronism even by the idiosyncratic standards of Vermont as a whole.
“What’s interesting is that of the 42 towns we called around Vermont to see how they handle things we didn’t find any of them that does it like Woodstock does it,” said Realtor and long-time Pleasant Street resident Peter Saman, noting, “Every single one of the towns we talked to clears their sidewalks for their residents.”
How worked up residents get about the ordinance tends to rise and fall in lockstep with the annual snowfall totals but while last year’s continuous dumping of the white stuff managed to get the issue firmly before the Village trustees, the need to debate any significant outlays of money at the annual Village Meeting on March 20 means that any real changes to the current system will not take place until the winter of 2012-2013.
In the meantime, much like students tackling a complicated “story problem” in a seventh grade math class, the six-member Sidewalk Committee appointed by the Village Trustees is trying to figure out how to even go about calculating the most cost-effective ways to get the snow off the 6.25 miles of sidewalks that snake through downtown Woodstock.
“The first question is should the Village even take on this service?” Chairman Coburn explained, adding, “And then, if we do take it on, how do we handle it?”
There are actually a lot of different options but they mostly fall within two major categories: either giving the task to the Village Highway Department or paying private contactors to do the work.
“The Village Highway Department is bare bones and they are already tapped out doing the roads when we have these big storms,” Coburn said, “They are just working constantly.”
An estimate pulled together for the committee by Highway Foreman David Green pegged the cost of adding a professional sidewalk shoveling operation to the existing department’s repertoire at about $103,000 including equipment such as heavy-duty snow blowers, a used pickup truck and sidewalk plow vehicle.
“We’d also have to build a shed, probably down by the sewer department, to house the salt and sand,” Coburn said. “There’s lots of costs when you decide to really do it.”
The largest cost would be labor because it would involve another person dedicated to sidewalk clearing who wasn’t part of the regular department and it’s hard to envision a part-time employee who would be available and standing by for just those occasions when snow is falling.
“David Green pointed out that other towns which do this usually have a water and sewer department they can pull an extra person from during storms,” Coburn explained.
“We have a private water department in town and our sewer department is already run with three people when the recommendation is for four people. We don’t have any fluff to pull from.”
The Village already hires a private contractor to clear sections of Village-owned sidewalk which are not in front of private homes or businesses – and to clear sections that have not been properly cleared by individual residents for whatever reason (although, in those cases, the homeowners will eventually get a $40 an hour bill from the Village for that service, and potentially a fine) and that is the model that the Sidewalk Committee is spending most of its effort exploring at the moment.
“We’ve already sent out bids basically saying, `Okay private contractors, if you want this work, what is it going to look like?’,” Coburn said. The committee is set to review the bids, which are based on breaking the Village down into four sections and letting interested parties bid on some or all of the quadrants for the winter season, during their next meeting this coming week on January 24 at 3 p.m. at the Town Hall.
Based on what they learn about the potential costs of using private contractors, the Sidewalk Committee will then begin crafting a series of proposals with the hopes that they can be before the voters for consideration at the March 20 Village Meeting.
“We’re still looking at how it will be presented to the voters,” Coburn said, noting, “The February 14th meeting will be interesting because that’s when the recommendations from the committee will first be shown to voters and then the Village Meeting will be where it all gets hashed out.”
“I think there should be options,” Coburn continued, “This vote could start out with the biggest proposal and say, “If this passes then the others are off the table,” but if it doesn’t pass then you go to the next option, and then the next if that doesn’t pass, and so on.”
Deciding what size program would potentially make sense for Woodstock is going to be a challenge in part because the other towns across Vermont that volunteers, including Saman, polled in recent weeks are so diverse in what they do and what they pay to have it done.
Some towns shell out as little as $11 an hour, others pay $65. Some, like Hartford, have state-of-the-art Trackless plows that zoom down sidewalks in Quechee and White River Junction with articulating blades, flashing lights, and an on-board salt and sand spreader. Others, like Newbury Village, rely on a local resident with a John Deere tractor and a snowblower.
Saman said what he concluded from calling around Vermont was that village centers with between 10 and 30 miles of sidewalks to clear tended to use the more expensive, dedicated equipment and personnel while villages with less than 10 miles had a much quirkier mix of methods and options.
Saman, who gets out and shovels the 92 feet worth of Village sidewalk which runs alongside Route 4 in front of his home, said another consideration for residents like him is the legal liability that comes with being responsible for that ribbon of concrete. “A lot of us pay about $300 a year for umbrella policies to cover our sidewalk,” in case someone were to be injured upon it, Saman noted.
Having the Village take up the responsibility for plowing the sidewalks would confer “municipal immunity” upon the property owners who currently have to worry about that liability but Coburn said that one possible outcome of the Sidewalk Committee’s current push to come up with a proposal is that the voters could decide to stick with the status quo.
Part of the reason is that it’s not clear whether or not it will be possible to craft a plan that exempts business owners, such as the Woodstock Inn which currently maintains a considerable swath of sidewalks in the downtown, from the scope of any changes to the sidewalk ordinance.
Coburn said she doubted the Inn, which has it’s own staff to see to prompt sidewalk clearing would cede that to a town crew or the town’s contractors, but she said under the current proposals, “Their taxes would still be affected (and effectively) they’d be paying for plowing twice.”
There are about 127 residences in Woodstock Village that have sidewalks out front and, Coburn predicted, even as the Sidewalk Committee starts to come up with proposals in the weeks ahead, “Whatever happens someone is not going to be happy.”

This article first appeared in the January 19th, 2012 edition of the Vermont Standard.

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