Monthly Archive for October, 2004

Common Sense About Snow Shoveling

Here's the text of my guest column in the Watertown Tab, Friday, October 22

Not passing shoveling ordinance protects bad neighbors
By Glen Mohr
Friday, October 22, 2004

When is common sense not common sense? When it's simply a label behind which to hide agenda-driven politics the way one local political action group is doing. So at the risk of sounding like sour grapes, I'd like to provide some real common sense about the residential snow-shoveling ordinance. And if Mr. DiMascio can stop his chest-beating victory celebration for long enough to read this, perhaps there can still be a substantive debate.

Mr. DiMascio wrote: “Among other problems, this ordinance is a trial lawyer's dream. Any language that requires private persons to clear public sidewalks could shift additional liability onto homeowners. Anyone injured could bolster his or her case by claiming a homeowner violated a town ordinance. Further, the attorneys we've spoken with agree; the odds of a private citizens being successfully sued are arguably increased by such a measure.”

The issue with liability and snow is that if you leave it alone, it's considered an act of God, and if someone slips on your untouched walk, you are not liable. In Massachusetts, the courts have held that although a property owner owes a duty of reasonable care to anyone lawfully on the premises, “this duty is not violated by a failure to remove a natural accumulation of snow or ice.” As soon as you clear the snow, however, then you are responsible for the condition of the walk and you can be held liable.

It is possible that a town ordinance could help a negligence case against a homeowner who chooses not to clear his or her walk. But there's a contradiction here that doesn't make sense – certainly not common sense. At the same time that he cries about additional liability, Mr. DiMascio's position (and that of the Town Council and this paper) is that people should clear their walks voluntarily and the town should encourage them to do so. Whether you shovel because an ordinance says you have to or whether you do it voluntarily, you could still be held liable for an injury.

The only way you would not be liable is if there's no ordinance and you don't shovel.

Not having an ordinance only protects those people who choose not to clear their walks – who choose not to be considerate neighbors. Why do these people deserve the town's protection? Why do Mr. DiMascio and most of the Town Council think we can have it both ways?

Mr. DiMascio also wrote: “This could have an immediate financial impact on every resident. Property owners would be forced to purchase the appropriate insurance. Assuming such coverage were available, the premiums will increase. Those costs would eventually be passed on to tenants.”

In fact, we homeowners all have insurance that covers us if we are held liable for an injury sustained on the sidewalks around our house. It's called homeowners insurance. This “appropriate insurance” is widely available. Insurance companies base their premiums on what they pay out in claims. To cause an increase in premiums, there would need to be a substantial increase in claims. This means a substantial increase in lawsuits in which the homeowner is judged liable. Again, a snow-shoveling ordinance might arguably (Mr. DiMascio's qualifier) change things only for the people who aren't shoveling and then only if they got sued. Will there really be such an increase in successful suits against those people so as to cause all of our premiums to increase? Common sense says no. But I am not just relying on common sense. I spoke with multiple insurance company underwriting managers about this, and they all said that it would be highly unlikely that there could be an increase in premiums resulting from such an ordinance.

Just a few words about Councilor John Portz. As chairman of the Ordinance Committee, he was charged with doing the research on whether this ordinance made sense. And he did it, which is much more than can be said for the previous Ordinance Subcommittee members who relied on their “common sense” when they refused to pass it on to the full council. John Portz contacted other municipalities that have snow-clearing ordinances, he talked to lawyers and insurance companies. He did the work that we elected him to do and he voted for what he thought was in the best interest of our community. And what did he get in return? A lack of support from his fellow councilors and name-calling from a so-called protector of the public interest. What a shame.

It's a real travesty that one outspoken citizen was able to cow our Town Council into making the wrong decision.

Glen Mohr lives on Commonwealth Road.

Eat at Jae's but don't stay there

Ilyse and I spent our 11th anniversary this past weekend in North Adams and Williamstown. We were advised to stay at Porches, directly behind Mass MoCA but they only had one room left for $295 and that was a little steep for us. Mass MoCA listed a couple other places to stay on its site and Jae's Inn caught our attention because we have enjoyed eating at Jae's restaurants in Boston and Cambridge on several occasions. The spa at Jae's offers massages and that sounded like a great thing to combine with hiking and museums. So we made our reservation and drove out on Sunday the 10th.
First, the good part: The dinner entrees were excellent and the kitchen accommodated vegetarians by making the kimchee stew with extra vegetables and tofu instead of pork. The waiter was attentive although not able to explain any dishes or offer suggestions since he was new. But that's where the praise ends.
When we arrived in our room, the bathroom had not been cleaned and the bathtub had a lot of hair in it. Also while we changed for dinner, we noticed a loud “whump, whump, whump” coming intermittently from just below our room. When we went downstairs we realized the sound was coming from the swinging doors to the kitchen that were located directly under our bed. We asked the woman at the front desk if our bathroom could be cleaned while we were eating dinner. I also asked her about the noise from the doors. She said she would tell her manager about the bathroom and that the noise from the doors would stop when they stopped serving at 9:00 or 9:30.
We sat down to dinner at 8:00 and at 9:30 we asked the waiter if there was a dessert menu. He informed us there was no dessert and the coffee had already been dumped out so we couldn't even get that.
We went back up to our room and discovered that the bathroom had not been touched. Back at the front desk I asked again about cleaning the bathroom (and offered to do it myself if someone would just get me some cleanser and a sponge). A very nice woman standing at the front desk came upstairs immediately and cleaned it for us. The manager asked me who I had told originally and said “she must have had a high school moment.”
The incessant “whump, whump, whump” from the swinging doors finally stopped around 11:00pm which is the time a sign in the room says quiet hours begin and guests should refrain from using the jacuzzi.
At midnight a wedding party returned. After a lot of walking up and down the hall and chatting outside our room, they gathered at the bar and someone started playing guitar and singing poorly. The noise made it impossible to sleep (keep in mind we have a one-year-old and a three-year-old so this night was supposed to be a very rare one of uninterrupted sleep and no one calling us at 6:30 in the morning to get him out of his crib.) Finally at 1:30am I went downstairs to see what was going on. After wandering around for a while I finally found a guy who worked there and asked him if it was a regular thing for the bar to be open this late. He told me the wedding party had just returned and he had opened the bar for them. In choice language, I told him what I thought about the noise.
At precisely that moment the young newlyweds came out and overheard me yelling at the employee. Of course I felt terrible about putting any kind of damper on their celebration so I told the groom not to worry about it, that we would survive as we're pretty used to getting very little sleep.
The noise finally ended at 3:00am after two of the guests stood outside our room and had a long conversation on a cellphone about what to do with their drunk friend who had passed out in their room.
We had planned to get up early and hike Mount Greylock before lunch and a massage and then Mass MoCa. Obviously the morning hike was out of the question.
At 7:00am we were jolted out of bed by the “whump, whump, whump” of the kitchen doors. I got dressed and went downstairs to see if the doors could be propped open at least for an hour or two. An elderly gentleman setting out breakfast gave me a nasty look and before I could speak said in a very annoyed voice, “yeah?” I asked if he could do something about the doors and he looked at me like I was crazy. I explained that we had been kept up until 3:00am by the noise and we were trying to get a little sleep but the doors were keeping us up. He replied, “You're the one that gave that guy a hard time last night aren't you? Well we had a wedding party here. You don't want to stay here anymore anyway. You should just leave. You've been a complainer from the start and I don't give a shit!…” He continued yelling at me but by then I figured he wasn't going to do anything about the doors so I went back upstairs.
We both got up and dressed and went down to eat the sad little continental breakfast laid out on the bar. While we were eating, the same man came out and started yelling at me again. I asked him to please stop but he continued. Finally Ilyse told him that it was our anniversary and that we had hoped for a quiet night and that we were just tired and wanted to have some coffee and leave. At that point he softened and told us he had run the inn himself for many years before and after Jae had bought it. He said he never would have had other guests when there was a large wedding party. About the swinging doors he said the kitchen had previously been on the other side of the building and that Jae had not been smart to put it under the rooms when he renovated. He also strongly recommended that we see the Clark Institute as well as Mass MoCa and for that we thank him.
It was then that I noticed the Boston Globe review framed on the wall by the door. I wish I had read it before we came because things certainly haven't changed since Sheryl Julian spent a sleepless night there in 2003. In fact the review was so bad I can't understand why it's posted there for everyone to read. I guess by the time you read it you've already committed to staying. The review includes a warning about the noise in the massage rooms and though we were still considering our massages, the thought of listening to bar noise while trying to relax convinced us to cancel.
So, all in all, it was just about the worst experience at an inn we've ever had (at least in this country). But we did have a great time seeing the museums, eating at Eleven at Mass MoCA and, of course, looking at the peak foliage on the way out and back.

Another citizen weighs in on snow shoveling

In the October 8 Watertown TAB, Rachelel Natale wrote–

“Unlike Councilors Bailey and Falkoff, John Portz didn't see the wisdom
of trying compromise measures before imposing the ordinance We know
that insurance companies settle claims before they go to court. So the
“case law” Councilor Portz cites amounts to a law students' debate. In
the end, even mothers with baby carriages have to compromise.”

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