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Mark Hayward's City Matters: Dig deep in NH history to find reason for slippery sidewalks


The Christmas-New Year holiday season concluded only yesterday, so it's not too late to take up my rendition of that wonderful carol of Christmas in the city, "Silver Bells:"

City sidewalks, slippery sidewalks

Filled with packed snow and ice.

Kinda think you're atop Cannon Mountain.

Ankles achin', hips are breakin',

When you hit a slick patch,

And above all your cussing you hear ...

Not my job; Get someone else.

It's winter-time in New Hampshire.

"Live Free or Die"

Means I won't try

To clear my 'walk of ice.

Once winter snows hit Manchester, as well as most other New Hampshire cities, sidewalks become treacherous for pedestrians. If you walk, you're forced to make a lose-lose choice.

• Sidewalks. On most of them, geological borings could render a layer-by-layer history of winter weather. Wet snow stomped down by pedestrians, which freezes into an uneven, rock-hard path, which thaws and refreezes into smooth sheets of ice, which dry into black ice. And then the cycle starts all over.

• Streets. Snowbanks narrow the streets, but they're smoother than sidewalks and not as slippery. At best you risk sneakers full of slush. At worst a car hits you, and you get a ride to the hospital.

"It's for sh—," said Bryan Hunt-Campbell as he trod along Wilson Street two weeks ago. He spoke three days after the first big storm of the winter. "There's nowhere to walk without getting covered in snow," he said.

In Manchester, road crews do what they can to keep sidewalks clear. Like most cities, Manchester, Nashua and Concord have a priority system: first downtown, then sidewalks around schools and finally all the other sidewalks.

But it's not working, and if cities hire any more workers to clear their sidewalks, it should be a cop with a ticket book. Like in Boston.

In Beantown, a property owner is required to clear his sidewalks three hours after a snowfall ends. The city requires a minimum width — 42 inches. The city website has a page to report sidewalk scofflaws. And fines can be $50 to $200, depending on the property.

Manchester and most cities have similar ordinances on the books. But they can't be enforced thanks to an 1898 ruling by the New Hampshire Supreme Court that found a constitutional right not to shovel your sidewalk.

The judges looked at snow shoveling like people look at everything in New Hampshire — as a tax. Any requirement that people shovel their sidewalks is a tax, the Supreme Court said. And by nature, it can't be applied uniformly because some properties have more sidewalk than others.

(Of course, the judges made no mention of the lack of uniformity when it comes to the service. Downtown and school-area streets get plowed immediately; others can take days, or weeks.)

It's a silly ruling, made by silly judges who were probably mad they had to shovel their sidewalks. And the ruling was made 116 years ago, back when women couldn't vote, birth control was illegal, and anything short of killing a child was called parental discipline.

"I think I could probably speak for all public works directors and road agents in the state that they would love to see that (ruling) changed," said Kevin Sheppard, Manchester director of public works.

Manchester has 137 miles of sidewalks, and crews generally start clearing them right after a snowstorm, Sheppard said. But he notes that plow drivers comprise most of the sidewalk crew, and they need to sleep after long hours of street plowing.

It can take anywhere from three days to a week for a crew of 15 workers and 11 machines to clear the city's sidewalks, Sheppard said.

Of the four cities I contacted, only Keene — a college town with a citizenry of health-oriented walkers and bikers — treats sidewalks like roads. City Manager John MacLean said seasonal workers begin on sidewalks immediately after a storm ends.

Outside of Keene, I suspect that most pedestrians would favor a sidewalk-shovel law. (Such as law would have positive consequences: absentee landlords would quickly accrue hefty fines and start paying attention to their properties.)

And a sidewalk-shovel law seems right for New Hampshire.

Kind of ironic, isn't it. That when it comes to sidewalks, New Hampshire law forces higher taxes and relies on government to clear sidewalks. Where in Michael-Dukakis, liberal-Democratic Massachusetts, people are expected to be responsible and take care of their property.

I hate it when Massachusetts is more New Hampshire than we are.

Mark Hayward's City Matters runs Thursdays in the New Hampshire Union Leader and UnionLeader.com. When not slipping on city sidewalks, he can be reached at mhayward@unionleader.com.

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