originally published in the Hartford Advocate March 6, 2008
Slaves To The Snow
Why can the town government force you to shovel their sidewalks? Nobody seems to know.
By Jennifer Abel
Ah, the sublime New England joy of awakening to discover that overnight, Mother Nature has quilted the earth beneath a gentle blanket of snow.
That idyllic morning scenario only applies to apartment dwellers, or homeowners in the sticks. Those in West Hartford or anywhere else urban enough to have sidewalks in front of their houses have to get dressed and go shovel off some town property; specifically, that sidewalk we mentioned.
This is hardly unique to West Hartford. It applies pretty much wherever public walkways exist. Here in Connecticut the rule is generally that the sidewalk is public property, but you personally have to maintain it, while in other states it's more the sidewalk is yours, but everybody gets to use it and you have to make sure there's no snow or ice in their way.
Walking through snow and ice is, of course, very annoying and you can slip if you're not careful. Shoveling sidewalks is also annoying, which is probably why the government figures "better you should do it than us."
Disclosure: our current living arrangement makes us exempt from any sidewalk-maintenance regulations. And no matter how annoying the sound of scraping shovels might get, we're too well-bred to even think about ever opening our window and shouting "Stop shoveling so loudly! You're disturbing us here in our cozy warm bed!"
But when West Hartford's e-mail alert service sent out a reminder that the town expects everyone to clean out their sidewalks within 12 hours of snowfall's end (and is also sponsoring some wholesome activities for children), we did call to wonder how these snow-removal mandates got around the 13th amendment to the Constitution.
That's the one which reads "Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime where of the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction." This includes West Hartford, most of whose residents lack criminal records.
Town police recommended we bring our questions to the corporation counsel (the attorneys who handle legal matters for the town). Assistant counsel Kimberly Boneham told us "the General Assembly has two statutes allowing towns to require homeowners to clear ice and snow off the sidewalks."
We had no doubt the town was acting within the confines of the law, we told her; what we couldn't understand was how the law passed constitutional muster in the first place. "The court interpretation is 'for the greater good,'" Boneham said.
But there's no "greater good" exemption in the 13th amendment. Boneham suggested we speak to the legislature, so we called the state Senate clerks' office to ask if anybody had ever tried challenging the sidewalk regulations on constitutional grounds, assured him that yes, we were serious but wouldn't be offended if anybody laughed, and after a slightly awkward pause the guy told us, "You'd have to look that up in the [legislative] law library."
And we would've done it, too, only we didn't have time because we had to scrape all the ice and snow off our car.