As New Paltz Village Board member Don Kerr predicted, getting a nasty snowstorm seemed to be what was necessary for village residents to comment on the proposed law to cut the allowable time to shovel snow from 24 hours down to 12. Enough people had enough to say during last week’s public hearing on the law that a majority of trustees said they were not comfortable voting for the measure in its present form.
Social equity, safety and health are among the issues used to frame this debate. The longer sidewalks remain unsafe or impassable, the more people choose to use cars or, in some cases, remain shut inside until conditions improve. That’s unacceptable to Mayor Tim Rogers. On the other hand, shoveling snow can pose health risks or an economic burden on property owners. In a time when design “complete streets” is in vogue, the sliver reserved for pedestrians is the only portion of the street where snow must be removed by owners of adjacent property rather than village workers. Halving the window could theoretically increase demand — and price — for shoveling services, particularly for older residents who might not be able to do the job themselves. Removing snow from sidewalks is not a service likely to be taken over by government in the foreseeable future, whether it’s more just or not. When the mayor sought quotes for just shoveling the downtown sidewalks along Main, Front and Church streets, one bid he called “typical” was to do the work for $187,000 a year.
For village roads, nearly $90,000 is budgeted for snow removal; the sidewalk maintenance budget of $10,390 presumably includes the cost to shovel village-controlled paths.
Local landlord Leonard Loza told trustees that while he agrees snow removal is a property owner’s responsibility, as someone who maintains 1,200 linear feet, he’s concerned about having just 12 hours within which to accomplish that. He spoke about other groups of people who might find it difficult: commuters, who might be at work and unable to shovel until they get home, and senior citizens, who “move it slowly.” Add to that the fact that every time a municipal or government employees passes by in a plow truck, the sidewalk-clearing process must start again.
Alan Stout, first chair of the Bicycle-Pedestrian Committee, is a “strong proponent for this change,” which he said is important because “safe and secure pedestrian traffic” routes are necessary to reduce automobile traffic. A 2017 Rhodium Group report revealed that vehicular traffic is now the largest contributor to climate change, with increases in driving offsetting conversion to renewable power sources.
To Christine Paris, who described herself as both homeowner and “frequent pedestrian,” stronger enforcement of the 24-hour window would be preferable than reducing it.
Village code enforcement officer Holly Esposito enforces the snow law, among many others. She and others in the building department wouldn’t comment on the merits of the proposed law, but agreed that the perceived lag in enforcement has to do with how such things are approached. Property owners aren’t issued tickets once the 24 hours runs its course. Esposito drives around identifying problem sidewalks, calling the property owner to remind them. Any tickets she writes result in a court appearance, which costs taxpayers employee time and legal fees. Court proceedings are also not fast, and if the goal is safety right now, then dialog might be preferable. Esposito also has access to a crew of temporary workers who will clear the way; their pay theoretically comes out of the fines levied on property owners.
Rogers, then, refers to this law as an “enforcement tool” comparable to speed limits, allowing those building department employees to start the process of enforcement more quickly. He believes that giving 12 hours will not mean tickets being written that quickly, and Esposito’s description of her practice seems to bear that out.
Trustee Dennis Young’s view was shifted by the testimony, much of which was received in writing, and was swayed to focusing more on enforcement, particularly regarding “repeat offenders.” Kerr also said the feedback was persuading him that perhaps this was not the right approach to solving the problem of uncleared walkways. William Wheeler Murray advocated a more nuanced system such as the one in place in Wallkill, where when the clock starts ticking depends on the time of day the storm ended. Rogers said he feels the Wallkill rules are “too loose.”
“Twelve hours is pushing it for many residents,” said Murray.
For Rogers, allowing sidewalks to remain impassable flies in the face of being a green community, because it forces residents into cars. He called the snow shovel law the “new green deal for village residents.” It’s not immediately clear how gasoline-powered snowblowers — many of which have dirtier exhaust than cars — would impact such a deal, but Rogers doesn’t want the situation to remain one in which “it’s safer to get into your car.” Describing a woman who was moving through the streets on crutches because there was nowhere else to walk, he said he believes “we are truly failing our community.”
He and deputy mayor KT Tobin characterized objections as largely fear-based.
Trustees will continue working on finding language all can agree to support.