Somerville Will Hand Out ‘Scarlet Letters’ for Unshoveled Sidewalks

There's bound to be a village full of Hester Prynnes under the Board of Aldermen's updated bylaw.

When Hester Prynne gave birth to a child out of wedlock in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic The Scarlet Letter, she was forced to wear a glaring red ‘A’ across her chest, a sign of shame in her Puritan community that reminded people daily of her supposedly sinister ways.

Taking a page straight from that novel, penned in 1850, Somerville’s Board of Aldermen will do the same to residents who fail to shovel their sidewalks this winter.

At a meeting on December 11, board members unanimously voted in favor of updating the city’s current snow-removal laws by including a provision that would allow officials to brand miscreant landlords’ properties with visible “Scarlet Letters,” as first reported by the Somerville Journal, if they don’t clear public pathways in a timely fashion.

“The Inspectional Services Department will be hanging large, strikingly-colored door knockers on the properties of these offenders, which not only brings attention to the property owners, but make the neighbors aware of a citation that’s being served to such property,” said Alderman Mary Jo Rossetti during the meeting last week.

In an interview with Boston, Alderman Jack Connolly said the “Scarlet Letter approach” will let people walking by know, “oh good, that guy has a fine,” and they will realize the city “is going after them” and they are “being held accountable.”

“It’s irresponsible if you’re a property owner and you don’t keep your walkway safe. It’s not so much as a shaming, but we are enforcing the ordinance, and the only way people know for sure is if there’s a ticket affixed to the door,” he said. “They will be like orange or yellow, there will be no mistaking—you’ll know right away, ‘I know exactly what that is.'”

As part of the changes, fines “on the books” will double from $25 to $50 for a first offense, and $50 to $100 for a subsequent offense for owners and tenants in single, two, and three-family dwellings that do not shovel snowy and icy sidewalks within a certain timeframe. According to Rossetti, the city is trying to condense the timeframe in which properties will be cleared. According to details of the ordinance, residents and building owners will have to get rid of the snow on the sidewalks before 10 a.m. if it stops snowing before sunrise, and 10 p.m. if the snow stops before sunset.

“It shortens the timeframe considerably,” said Connolly. “The city was thinking we want people to realize we take these complaints seriously, and we are going after these parties…you’re calling attention that this is an offender.”

Those who are on vacation during a snowstorm will be able to appeal the fines if they return home from a trip and find a door-knocker.

Putting teeth into the snow-removal rules by introducing red-letter shaming and hefty citations is just part of the overall changes, however.

Mayor Joe Curtatone, who is expected to sign off on the updates to the ordinance, said it’s also about safety and compliance. “Building a city that is walkable, accessible, and safe for everyone also means everyone doing their part during the winter to keep our sidewalks cleared of snow,” he said in a statement sent to Boston. “In putting forward this ordinance, I’m hoping we can get more residents and businesses doing their part, while making it easier and more predictable for people to know when they need to have their sidewalks shoveled.”

Denise Taylor, a spokesperson for the city, reiterated the mayor’s call to action, and said a program to help seniors get snow off the sidewalks will be introduced.

“We’re beefing up our sidewalk clearing ordinance and we’re also doing an intensive push to expand our volunteer and youth shoveling programs so that persons who need assistance with that will get help,” she said. “The goal is simple: keeping our sidewalks clear and safe year-round. No one should be trapped in their home or put at risk because someone else sees no downside to not shoveling.”