When snow has to go, towns plow, push, and blow

Lynn Christoffers

Island towns are grappling with sizable snowstorms this winter, putting a strain on local budgets. Most towns have mobilized all of their snow removal equipment twice this year, and in some cases, called in private contractors to help town workers.

The down-Island towns each have slightly different priorities in the way the treat roads and clear snow after a storm. Often the priorities are determined by the characteristics of the town’s road layout and downtown area. Sometimes they reflect the wishes of residents, in the form of town meeting votes that establish plowing policy.

That is the case in Tisbury, where town meeting voters in 1978 authorized town workers to plow private roads, after the public ways are cleared. The town plows private roads only in heavy snowstorms, when large numbers of residents are at risk of being trapped in their homes by impassable private roads.

When snow starts falling, department of public works (DPW) director Fred LaPiana sends out two sand trucks. “That’s the first thing that gets mobilized,” Mr. LaPiana said. “Shortly after it starts snowing we dispatch the sanders, especially if we know we’re going to get hit hard.”

The DPW crews try to get all the main roads sanded, though sometimes that’s not possible. “We can’t let it build up too much,” Mr. LaPiana said. “As it gets heavier, we go at it. We keep plowing and plowing and plowing until it stops snowing.” For the most part, regular DPW workers can handle plowing. In heavier storms, the town contracts for an additional payloader to move snow off Main Street.

In all down-Island communities, town by-laws make home owners and business owners responsible for clearing sidewalks in front of their property. But inevitably, there are some who do not. Each town handles that a little differently. Tisbury clears only the sidewalks around the Tisbury School. Mr. LaPiana says most business are responsible, but some are not. A particular problem are seasonal businesses, closed in the winter, with the owners away. “It’s still their problem,” Mr. LaPiana said. “They could hire somebody to do it. Over the winter there’s a lot of kids that need work.”

Tisbury budgeted $15,000 for snow removal this year and Mr. LaPiana says about half of it has been spent already. An agreement with the state saves Tisbury considerable money. In exchange for leasing land to store sand and salt for state highways, the state gives Tisbury sand and salt at no cost.

In Edgartown, highway superintendent Stuart Fuller has six town owned plows, and various smaller snow removal gadgets. “We’ve got a big arsenal of equipment,” Mr. Fuller said. For him, it’s a matter of priorities. “Main roads, secondary roads, parking lots, sidewalks, bike path,” Mr. Fuller said.

A big storm means a lot of work for the highway department, but a small storm means almost as much work. “The last couple of winters have been smaller storms,” Mr. Fuller said. “But I’ve got the same number of miles of road, if I’ve got one inch, 8 inches or 20 inches. Mr. Fuller’s budget for snow removal is not exhausted, but it’s close. On Monday, selectmen voted to allow him to overdraw that budget account if he needs to.

As for the sidewalks, abutters have 24 hours to clear them. “Generally, that doesn’t happen,” Mr. Fuller said. Though they are near the bottom of the priority list, the town usually clears the sidewalks with an industrial size snow blower.

In Oak Bluffs, highway superintendent Richard Combra, Jr. sends out five plows and a payloader during a large storm. “The priority, obviously is the main roads,” said town manager Michael Dutton. He sometimes gets complaints about snow on the bike path. “We do get to the bike paths when we can,” Mr. Dutton said. “The bike paths unfortunately are not the priority.”

With a large number of seasonal business closed for the winter, sidewalks can be a problem in Oak Bluffs. While property owners are responsible, it is the town that usually clears the sidewalks. Mr. Dutton sees it as a necessity. “We’ve got a grocery store, a post office,” Mr. Dutton said. “We don’t have a lot of sidewalk. Our focus is really downtown.”

Oak Bluffs budgeted $12,000 for salt and sand, as well as $20,000 allotted for overtime pay for staff workers to sand, plow, and remove snow. Mr. Combra estimates the town has used approximately 40 percent of both accounts so far.