New Canaan officials divided over letting residents shovel sidewalks

A snowplow clears the roads in New Canaan on December 17, 2020.

A snowplow clears the roads in New Canaan on December 17, 2020.

Grace Duffield Hearst Connecticut Media

NEW CANAAN — New Canaan City Council members are divided over whether residents should have to shovel neighborhood sidewalks, but the proposal could be dead by the time it leaves committee.

At a July 1 meeting, most members of the New Canaan City Council’s Bylaws and Regulations Committee opposed a change that would make residents responsible for clearing snow from neighborhood sidewalks. But some want to keep the conversation going with the full council.

Under the city’s current ordinance, adopted in 2008, the city is responsible for removing snow and ice from public sidewalks in the city’s residential district and adjacent single- and two-family residential zones. Downtown business owners, not the city, are required to shovel sidewalks in front of their property.

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The ordinance makes the city legally liable if someone slips and injures themselves on a sidewalk that has not been properly swept or maintained.

First Selectman Dionna Carlson proposed changing the ordinance in early June, saying the city could only clear about half of the sidewalks it was responsible for and couldn’t afford to clear them all. Carlson credited the existing snow-clearing agreement as a compromise to gain public support for adding sidewalks in the city.

“(The ordinance) was changed when Main Street was built to allow it to pass, and that was great at the time,” Carlson said. “I’m pro-curb, like I said, but now residents are demanding more and more sidewalks. It’s an unsustainable model.”

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According to Public Works Director Tiger Mann, New Canaan has about 20.7 miles of sidewalks in the city, of which the city is responsible for just under 17 miles. The city shovels about nine of those miles, leaving about eight miles unmaintained.

Mann said that in addition to the current 20, another eight staff members would be needed to tackle sidewalks that the city has not cleared of snow. He estimates the annual cost at about $963,000, not including expenses such as snowplows.

Mann said there is the option of bringing in an outside contractor, but any savings would be “hard to quantify” if snow fell over the weekend and more overtime was required for contractors.

Carlson also noted that now that the city’s spending plan has already been set, “there is no additional money in the budget this year to build the roads that were not built in the past.”

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During the public meeting, residents criticized the municipality for going back on the concessions initially made to ensure that residents felt more comfortable on the sidewalks.

Resident Ian Hobbs, who said he is the third generation of his family to worry about sidewalks, said making homeowners responsible for clearing snow from sidewalks could put unnecessary burden on homeowners near busy pedestrian areas like the park or homes in the center of town, like his on Main Street.

“There are thousands of people going back and forth and they are liable for anyone who falls,” Hobbs said. “I’m glad the activity is there and I’m glad they enjoy it like I do, but I don’t know why I should have the sole responsibility.”

Even people who supported the original sidewalk initiative, like New Canaan resident Mary Flaherty, criticized the idea of ​​putting the responsibility for keeping the sidewalk clear on homeowners, especially those who can’t clear their own sidewalks.

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“We have people who are in their 80s and 70s; my neighbor showed me her scar from her knee replacement,” Flaherty said. “That’s not how you balance a budget, by shifting some costs to her and then taking it away from the thousands of people who can afford the costs for a public good.”

Most committee members voted not to move forward with the ordinance change. During a vote to gauge support, six committee members — half of the full council — said they did not support the ordinance change.

“Yes, we’re an outlier, but we’re also a city that funds non-essential things like the Playhouse,” said member Maria Naughton. “We can’t fund the fun stuff and take care of the basics, so I’m really in favor of finding a way for the city to clean the sidewalks.”

Others, like Cristina Ross, said cutting sidewalk clearing might not reduce the budget in a “meaningful” way.

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“Cleaning the sidewalks is certainly one of the smallest expenses,” Ross said. “If we’re really concerned about it, we should freeze the construction of new sidewalks and avoid the maintenance and cost issues.”

Only two people voted in favor, Hilary Ormond and Jennifer Zonis, but both hesitated, saying they mainly wanted to continue the discussion.

“We might hear from some other stakeholders who are taxpayers and who are not adjacent to the sidewalk owners,” Zonis said. “I might want to move it to the full City Council to hear more about it, without definitively saying I’m in favor of change.”

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Despite the majority’s position on the committee against changing the ordinance, the eight members of the committee were evenly divided on a second vote, as co-chair Tom Butterworth described it: “You either think this issue should go to the City Council or we’re done with it and it’s dead.”

Members Eric Thunem and Rita Bettino cast their votes. Thunem said, “If my vote has to be ‘yes’ to discuss this more broadly with the city council, then I’m going to turn my vote around.”

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