Snow and ice are not always easily moved; Snow-removal requirements depend on the laws of each local community.
When about 10 inches of snow blanketed the region in early January, thousands of residents in urban areas shoveled their walkways, as required by local ordinances.
But another sizeable faction waited for local highway workers to plow their walkways.
This is despite the July 2010 state law calling for property owners to remove and treat snow and ice on walkways and parking lots. Owners can be held liable for injuries caused by snow or ice on their property.
Most residents appear to act depending on whether their community has a local rule. Worcester and Webster require owners to shovel in front of their properties; Shrewsbury and Auburn do not.
Shrewsbury Highway Superintendent John F. Knipe Jr. said residents are neither encouraged nor discouraged from shoveling.
On occasion, a resident will complain to the highway department that his neighbor hasn't shoveled, Mr. Knipe said. When told there isn't a local rule, things usually end there, he said.
The department has three sidewalk machines that are used to clear snow from about 24 miles of sidewalk on "main runs'' and walking routes to schools, Mr. Knipe said.
He couldn't estimate how many miles of sidewalk the workers were not able to get to, but conceded it was "a lot.''
Asked if he would favor a bylaw, to lighten the load on his department, Mr. Knipe shrugged.
"I'm indifferent -- because what do you do with the elderly person or handicapped person who can't take care of their walkway? That makes it difficult.''
Auburn Department of Public Works Director William A. Coyle Sr. said his department plows up to 24 miles of sidewalk, including a priority of about 8 miles near schools. This is begun after workers finish plowing roads, even though they are usually "extremely tired,'' he said.
Sidewalks, including the Route 12 area, can take about a week to finish, depending upon the depth of the snow, he said.
The sidewalk work continues toward the intersection of Routes 12 and 20, but beyond that, on Route 20, several raised islands headed toward Oxford make it difficult to access with the ongoing construction, Mr. Coyle said.
Some people shovel in front of their homes, but the majority of residents, accustomed to having the town take care of it, do not, he said.
On whether he'd prefer a bylaw requiring residents to shovel, Mr Coyle said: "My suspicion is that it would get lukewarm reception from the residents.''
Leicester Highway Superintendent Thomas P. Wood said there was discussion about putting a rule in place about three years ago, but it never moved forward because of different concerns from selectmen. Mr. Wood said he also has concerns. He questions who would maintain vacant properties, who would enforce the rule, and how the elderly could be expected to shovel, without hiring someone.
In Worcester, Police Sgt. Kerry Hazelhurst, the department spokesman, said city residents are "pretty good'' about shoveling walkways, despite an increase this year in citations.
As of Dec. 31, he said, 49 citations had been issued for not shoveling the sidewalk.
At the same time 12 months ago, only 12 citations had been issued, he said.
Last winter, police issued a total of 419 citations for not shoveling sidewalks, he said.
The most recent numbers don't necessarily speak to an uptick, the sergeant said, because citations are driven by complaints and the number of snowstorms.
Public works receives the complaints, which are forwarded to officers, who look into them, Sgt. Hazelhurst said.
"We have a good system in place; our officers go out there and check on addresses and issue a warning,'' he said. "Usually people will get out there and clear the snow.
"If not, (police) they'll go back, and there will be fines of $75. If they continue to refuse, the city will hire a crew to remove the snow, and they will get billed for that as well,'' he said.
"There's always going to be a few that won't do it for whatever reason, but this is where the system fills in that gap,'' Sgt. Hazelhurst said
Webster requires residents to shovel sidewalks within 24 hours of a storm, with a $10 per day civil infraction issued.
Webster Police Chief Timothy J. Bent said he suspects many homes that are perhaps under foreclosure, or are bank-owned, contribute to the issue.
"Really, who's responsible for that?'' he said. "It's tough.''
Chief Bent said he is also aware of elderly people who are not able to shovel, which he said was "kind of heartbreaking.''
A source of pride for the chief was Officer Donald Southall's December 2009 response to a complaint about a Park Avenue resident who hadn't shoveled her walkway. The officer went to the home to investigate and learned the owner was 80.
Instead of reaching for a ticket, Officer Southall found a shovel and cleared the walkway for the woman.
Southbridge, which has a bylaw for shoveling sidewalks and fire hydrants, is facing a similar issue.
Because he had suffered a heart attack and his wife was blind, Joseph W. Beaudry of Beech Street recently told Town Councilor Denise Clemence he could no longer shovel the hydrant near his corner lot.
Ms. Clemence spoke about it during the Jan. 6 Southbridge council meeting.
Before researching the bylaw, Ms. Clemence told Mr. Beaudry she thought his case would be a special circumstance, and there must be a way he could be exempt.
She promised to look into it for him, and spoke at the meeting in hopes of getting the word out, she said.
"I think he has a legitimate reason to appeal a ticket if he were to receive one,'' Ms. Clemence said. "I also believe that the bylaws are important and serve a purpose to protect and provide guidance for all the community members. It can sometimes be hard to understand enforcing them, especially in an instance like Mr. Beaudry's.''
Most communities ask their residents to "adopt a hydrant,'' and for good reason.
"We ran the math one day,'' said Auburn Fire Chief Stephen M. Coleman Jr., whose town has more than 500 hydrants. "And if we were to try to shovel out every hydrant after a snowstorm, even if we worked at it for 14 hours a day, it would take us a month to shovel out every fire hydrant in town. It's one of those feats where you need the public support.''
Worcester, which has nearly 6,100 hydrants, gives a certificate of appreciation to people who take on the task of shoveling one out. Many are shoveled out by people who are not in the adopt-a-hydrant program, a Worcester official said.
Contact Brian Lee at firstname.lastname@example.org.