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Home » Local Voices » Mark Hayward's City Matters

February 12. 2014 11:37PM

City Matters: Another storm, another chance to do your part for your city to do the right thing




Last month, I wrote about a 19th-century state Supreme Court decision that said New Hampshire residents have a constitutional right not to shovel their sidewalk. I called it silly.

Reactions were swift and generally fell into two categories:

• What's wrong with New Hampshire? We always had to shovel the sidewalks in my hometown of (fill in the blank), Massachusetts.

• Beware New Hampshire: Any government big enough to force us to shovel our sidewalk is big enough to take our guns.

In fact, the column generated enough heat that it started raining, and a lot of snow melted. But last week, we received nearly a foot of snow in southern New Hampshire. Expect almost as much today. That means opportunities to close school, to sled, to ski, and to shovel sidewalks.

Let's look at the issue with a virtual slide show.

-- Meet Isaac Blodgett, the Supreme Court justice, who in 1898 — long before there were cars — wrote that laws requiring people to shovel their sidewalks were unconstitutional.

Even back then, Blodgett knew the first rule of New Hampshire politics: If you don't like something, call it a tax.

A sidewalk-shovel law, he wrote, was like a tax, because it demanded something of its residents, just as a tax does.

A sidewalk-shovel law violated the state's constitution because lots have sidewalks of all different lengths, and a landowner with more sidewalk has a higher tax burden than his neighbor.

"This is extortion and inequality, pure and simple — and it is nothing else," the decision reads.

The decision dealt with complex philosophical matters about the relationship of the individual to society. But as I look at Blodgett, I ponder a deeper question: Did Mrs. Blodgett ever kiss him after a meal of Chinese takeout?

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Under Blodgett's logic, people with more sidewalk were being overtaxed. ("The tyranny of a corner lot!" he might say.)

But that's preposterous. Note the two houses on Elm Street. The mansion at left fetched $11,200 for the city last year in taxes. Under Blodgett's reasoning, it should be taxed at $7,800, the amount paid by its more modest neighbor. In fact, every property in Manchester should be taxed the same. Then everything would be equal and fair. (Pretty socialistic if you ask me.)

These properties are taxed at the same rate, but because they differ in value, their owners pay a different tax bill. Blodgett confused the tax rate with the tax bill. When it comes to Blodgett's analogy, the tax rate is a requirement that all property owners shovel their sidewalks.

The tax bill — or how much shoveling must be done — depends on the size of the sidewalk.

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No sidewalk-shovel law means no respect for sidewalks, which means situations such as this. This is a sidewalk on Bowman Street, a narrow street on the West Side of Manchester. The owner of the car obviously thinks it's fine to park on the sidewalk.

Also take note of the snow that someone piled up behind the car. Sidewalks, like roads, are public byways.

And while the city can't force its residents to shovel sidewalks, city ordinances do prohibit people from shoveling, plowing, or snow-blowing snow onto sidewalks. Just like the city prohibits shoveling snow onto city streets.

But the city rarely if ever gives citations for blocking sidewalks with snow. What's the point, if the sidewalk isn't shoveled anyway?

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Some warn that a homeowner who does the conscientious thing and shovels his sidewalk opens himself to liability. Just let an ungrateful pedestrian slip, and the victim will end up suing and owning your house. In Massachusetts, I hear, lawyers lurk behind snowbanks to find easy clients.

As a reporter, I hear people make excuses all the time, and one of the most frequent reasons is liability. Can't let kids swim here because of liability. Can't let someone walk across my land because of liability. Can't give someone a ride because of liability. Blah, blah, blah.

However, what of the drivewalk? That is my word for the portion of city sidewalk that crosses one's driveway (driveway + sidewalk = drivewalk). Does not a homeowner open himself to financial ruin for shoveling his drivewalk? They're willing to take the risk. If fact, if you look at the precision that Varney Street resident Norm McCarty uses to clear his drivewalk (the angle of his blade, the direction of his throw), you realize that property owners would clear their sidewalks with the same care.

Lawyers would have to stick to suing doctors and the Weare Police Department.

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When I suggested the idea of a sidewalk shovel law, many city residents say it isn't needed. Why? Because the city already does it.

"They have a machine to do it," said Hevey Street resident Jane White. She went on to complain that it takes four or five days, but the mini-plow eventually shows up.

"It saves me a lot of back-breaking work," McCarty said of the machine. We could have a learned discussion about government overreach, but when someone's shoveling a foot of snow off city property, it's not the time to wax on about self-reliance and limited government.

Kevin Sheppard, the city public works director, has said he would love to see a sidewalk-shovel law. But were one put in place, he would quickly find that people get used to services once the government provides them.

"The city would lose," White warned if a shovel law were passed. "There's more people who would vote against the city."

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Many think this discussion is unnecessary. What's the need for sidewalks in New Hampshire anyway? Most places don't have sidewalks, and everyone has a car.

For one, the city's master plan calls for a walkable city, and even includes a portion on sidewalk improvement. And First Lady Michelle Obama says our kids are fat and should exercise more. Maybe if sidewalks were clear, parents could have their children walk to school.

Several parents actually were on foot last week as they collected their children at McDonough School. The sidewalk was snowed in. Cars were parked on the street. So the walkers were in the travel lane.

"What else can we do?" asked Abraham Curtis.

On Amory Street, 65-year-old Richard Rousseau preferred the slush of the street to deep snow of the sidewalk. The retiree said he walks facing traffic, and the only people who splash him with slush are cars full of kids. As for the sidewalk? No way; he's slipped and hurt his back on unshoveled sidewalks.

"I won't take a chance," he said, "on ice."

Mark Hayward's City Matters appears Thursdays in the New Hampshire Union Leader and UnionLeader.com. He can be reached at mhayward@unionleader.com.


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