Legal Obligation to Shovel Snow on Public Sidewalks

It’s apparently pretty common for municipalities to impose an obligation on people to shovel the snow on the sidewalks in front of their houses. My question is on what legal or constitutional basis does the ability to impose this obligation rest.

The sidewalk does not belong to the homeowners and they did not contribute in any way to the snow being there.

How is this any different than if a city decided to impose an obligation on people to shovel snow in the park or other public property? Could they do this?

[Note: I have a very vague recollection of possibly having once posted this question before, but I ran a search and couldn’t find any such thread, and don’t remember the answer in any event.]

I would say just do it and get some exercise.

J/k – have no idea.

I’m not so sure about that. I think that it technically does belong to them, except that there is an easement which allows the public to walk there.

Your site says pretty much the opposite of your claim:

Amendment X - States can make any law that do not conflict with the Constitution.

In some jurisdictions (IIRC California) sidewalks are private property with public right-of-way. In regards to your question about PUBLIC sidewalks, the question is: is clearing the sidewalk a civic duty like jury duty or registering for the draft or is it a violation of Amendment XIII.

I would guess that they can create this obligation via the power to tax. Presumably they could require homeowners to pay a tax that went toward clearing the snow from sidewalks. And they could also exempt anyone who clears their own sidewalk within a certain time from the tax. If I understand the Supreme Court on Obamacare correctly, then a monetary penalty for failing to do a certain thing is constitutionally equivalent to a tax with an exception for those who do a certain thing.

I don’t think it is different, except that it would probably be more difficult politically.

I don’t know if something as specific as that would qualify as slavery.

But I had thought the gov needed some source of power before making people do things. Again, could they make people take turns shoveling walkways in the public park? Cleaning the City Hall toilets? Could they make people wear pinwheel hats on July 4?

Usually they’re both. They’re privately owned, but part of the right-of-way anyway due to the easement.

Why not? It is forced unpaid (I don’t think paid or unpaid matters if forced) labor that is not a punishment for a crime.

Some states/counties had mandatory labor requirements for residents, such that they had to help rebuild/regrade dirt roads every few years. I don’t believe such practice ever failed a constitutional test, though fell out of favor by the end of the 1800’s.

The City of Urbana, Illinois has an FAQ about its snow removal ordinance, including this answer to the question of penalties.

"What are the penalties?

If a person fails to clear snow, ice, sleet, or freezing rain, the City or its contractor will do it. After the City completes the work, the property owner will be billed for the City’s cost, plus a fine and administrative costs. Fines start at $25 for a first offense and administrative fees are set at $55."

Now I am not a lawyer, but since the alternative to the resident/business owner clearing the snow is for the city to do it (and charge for doing so), perhaps this is permitted under the government’s right to impose taxes?

As to my point that it may be considered a civic obligation.

There were news reports after the big snow in DC a few years ago that the fine was a flat rate that had not been updated. I didn’t live in the city but my attitude would have been “clean my sidewalk and send me the $35 bill”. With 20+ inches of snow it would be a bargin.

In some places they can even make you put on a uniform and fight a war.

This is almost never the case, at least here in New England. The sidewalk is usually in the public right-of-way. Because the sidewalk is physically within the right-of-way, it is publically owned, and no easement is required.

Municipalities here generally extend the right-of-way past the curb line (usually by 5-10 feet) not only for sidewalks, but also for utility poles and/or buried utilities. For a new development, this is done at the time that the property lines are established.

In Ann Arbor, according to a comment from City staff at a City Council meeting, it’s a patchwork. For some lots, the owned property goes to the center of the road, and the city has an easement from there to (and including) the sidewalk. For others, the lot property only goes to the edge of the right-of-way, and the rest is technically owned by the city. They enforce it the same either way.

In Massachusetts, you have to do it. Cities can levy fines on lazy-asses too.

The sidewalk is a public right-of-way, so the municipality can regulate it and set fines as it sees fit. It’s no different from setting rules for parking in the street.

You are not actually required to do the labor yourself, BTW: you can hire someone to do it, or, in some neighborhoods, a friend with a snowblower will do it.

Snow removal statutes and ordinances are usually characterized as exercises of the police power, although sometimes they are upheld under the power to tax. Most states do uphold them. They previously were not allowed by Illinois courts, but in 1979 the Illinois Supreme Court reversed its position and came in line with the large majority of states. I believe that New Hampshire continues not to allow ordinances of this kind.

American Law Reports commented on the issue raised by the OP in a 1929 report on “Constitutionality of statute or ordinance imposing upon abutting owners or occupants duty in respect of care or condition of street or highway”:

“These statutes and ordinances under consideration seem to require certain persons to perform labor for the benefit of the public without compensation, merely because they are so situated that they can perform the work more conveniently than anybody else, and to require them to do it is a convenient way of distributing a public burden and causing it to be performed. Such ordinances are difficult, if not impossible, to classify. In some features they resemble special assessments, the burden being imposed in the form of labor rather than of money, but as special assessments they would be unconstitutional, because not levied in proportion to benefit. On the other hand, it seems hardly possible to require a man, as an exercise of the police power, to remedy a condition which he has not caused, merely because to do so would enhance the public convenience. 19 R. C. L. 868. Yet, as will be seen under the sections following, the ground usually assigned for the exercise of this legislative authority is the police power, although in a few cases it is held that legislation of the kind under consideration is a valid exercise of the power of taxation.”

What’s the common law for lawsuits brought by people who fall and sustain an injury while walking on unshoveled sidewalks?