When and how to shovel: A guide

The real trick to shoveling is finding someone else to do it. We recommend a small child.

The real trick to shoveling is finding someone else to do it. We recommend a small child.

Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow.

On second thought, go ahead and try to stop it. Pray away the snow. Maybe aim one of your surface-to-air missiles at the clouds. If these efforts fail, you’re probably going to wake up tomorrow with a bunch of white stuff piled up around your home.

The Twin Cities is expected to get slammed with varying amounts between Tuesday and Wednesday, with totals ranging from four inches to nearly a foot around the metro area.

This leads to the inevitable, miserable moment the morning after, when bleary-eyed people glance out bleary-eyed windows and wonder, do I really have to shovel? What if my area didn’t get hit as hard as somewhere else? The answer? Yes. Just, yes.

A review of several city ordinances across Minnesota finds that there’s just no amount of allowable snow that can be left on sidewalks. Property owners are expected to “clear” the walkways outside their homes. That means clear, dammit.

No snow, and no ice. If snow has recently fallen, melted, and then refrozen, and now it’s covered with more snow, you must first remove all the powder. This done, find some sort of large, sharp-edged implement. This can be used to break up and remove the underlying ice, or be pointed menacingly at one of your neighbors while you ask him to do it.


And don’t just stop after peeling out one little strip wide enough to fit a pair of Ugg boots. A properly shoveled sidewalk leaves a berth three feet (36 inches) wide. (Eden Prairie goes much further, mandating all five feet of walkway be cleared.) Remember, cities say, some people are trudging around out there with strollers or walkers.

Some shovelers will tell you their gameplan involves clearing the snow bit by bit as it's falling, but you’re under no obligation to shovel while the stuff’s still coming down. There’s actually case law on this, dating back to the mid-'80s, when a woman sued Northwestern College in Roseville after a nasty spill on campus. A jury had awarded her $42,000 for a herniated disk she suffered, but that was dropped in the Minnesota Court of Appeals, which found that businesses “may await the end of a storm and a reasonable time thereafter,” before it's liable for the snow left on its property.

That “reasonable time” is up to local governments to determine, but generally, you get 24 hours after the snow stops, with a couple exceptions. St. Louis Park expects you to get the job done that same day, provided there are “six or more hours of daylight” remaining. And owners of business properties in Minneapolis have just four hours to get their sidewalks ready for foot traffic.

There’s a bit of relief for Minneapolis residents who live on the corner: While you’re supposed to clear the curb area, you’re not responsible for somehow disposing of the wall of snow inevitably deposited by the snowplow. You only have to get people off the curb. Once they’re standing on the street, it’s up to them — and their mule — to get across.

The city explains that it does try to come back around to make crosswalks passable but, “with some 16,000 corners to clear across the City, it may take a while,” helpfully adding that “your neighbors would appreciate it if you clear the pile.” Minnesota: Where even our city ordinances are passive aggressive.

Another note about that. Shovel in, not out. State law on sidewalk snow removal is fairly limited, but one universal truth is that it’s illegal to throw your snow into the street, or into the alley. It must instead be tossed onto your own property, such as the front lawn; the law does not suggest what kind of hat you should put on your snowman.

But what if you just don’t feel like shoveling? You were out until bar close, and you’re experiencing sympathy back pain from your pregnant wife, and you need to get to those eggs in the fridge before their expiration date. Then what?

As always, it depends on your municipal rules, but residents of Minneapolis and St. Paul are subject to serious fines. Up through a couple years ago, St. Paul was a lot more punitive about this aspect. A Minnesota Public Radio analysis found the less populous Twin City assessed nearly $300,000 in fines for more than 1,000 instances where the city sent crews to clear residential or commercial properties.

Minneapolis had just 741 such cases, and its fines totaled only $130,000. (Those Minneapolis fees disproportionately hit poorer areas, MPR found. Of course.) That’s changed now, though, as Minneapolis adopted a more aggressive system at the start of 2015, signing a $500,000 contract with a private company to handle its sidewalk maintenance.

Previously, city staff facing a backlog with other work might not follow up on complaints through the 311 city call line. Don’t expect the same from private contractors. After all, when’s the last time your car should’ve gotten towed, but didn’t?

There is another way. The city of Rochester expects residents to keep paths clear same as everyone else. But once snowfall hits the four-inch mark, the city takes responsibility, plowing any sidewalk five feet or more in width — a length of nearly 880 miles. To pay for this service for homeowners and businesses, Rochester assesses the cost on property taxes, using what’s called an “embellishment.”

It’s an interesting idea. Personally, we hope the only embellishment in this case is coming from the weatherman.