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Somerville targets nonshovelers with brightly colored hangers

With a stack of neon-yellow door hangers in hand, Chris Roche stepped off an East Somerville street, into the brown slush coating the sidewalk, and toward a house at the end of the block.

It had been more than a day since the snow stopped falling, but nobody there had shoveled. So Roche, a city inspector, was there with his oversized placards. Neighbors had surely noticed the mess, but the city wanted to visibly eliminate any question about who was responsible.

This is Somerville’s first week enforcing a beefed-up snow-removal ordinance that some elected officials are referring to as a “Scarlet Letter” approach. Fines have been doubled this year, and are now announced with a brightly colored notice intended to attract attention.

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“The idea was to have something significant that caught people’s eyes to let them know, ‘That’s the perpetrator,’ ” said Alderman Jack Connolly. “It also shows that the city is paying attention.”

More than 4 feet of snow has fallen this season in the Boston area, and municipalities are doing all they can to cajole residents to clear space for pedestrians. Officials elsewhere say they hope people take notice when somebody gets a ticket, but few openly use notoriety as motivation.

Connolly likes to think of the hangers, which stand in stark contrast to the snow, as a method of pointing out the “heinous crime” of ignoring snowy sidewalks, but others say the message is intended in a gentler way.

Denise Taylor, the city’s director of communications, said it’s not about embarrassing residents.

“This is really to help us mainly target those people who aren’t shoveling at all, who have repeatedly not shoveled, and who are putting others at risk because of it,” said Taylor. “We are not trying to shame anyone. We are trying to change their behavior.”

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The city has been lenient about enforcement because of the amount of snow that has fallen in such a short time. They issued about a dozen citations Tuesday and checked on more properties Wednesday.

Roche is one of several inspectors in the city. As he made his rounds, he stopped at a home and business that were the subject of complaints but had since been cleaned up. No need to ticket there.

Roche, an imposing, bearded man who wears a Red Sox jacket over a polo shirt as he travels the city, said he thinks the new ordinance is already working.

“I have lived in Somerville my whole life, and I can definitely say the sidewalks are in a lot better shape now than they have been in prior years.”

After showing up at a given property, Roche snaps an image of the sidewalk using a tablet and updates a municipal database to report the notice. Later, when he heads back to the office, he calls the property owner to tell them they’re being fined.

Because many delinquent shovelers don’t live in the houses that are being cited — many are rentals — the notices are intended also to inform tenants that they should tell their landlord to break out the snow-removal gear.

If snow falls overnight, owners have until 10 a.m. to clear it. Daytime snowfall must be cleared by 10 p.m. The new rules, passed in December, call for fines of $50, which can rise to $200 on a third offense. Officials also plan to use the placards for garbage and other property violations.

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In neighboring Medford, local officials announce fines with a two-page notice. They’ll try to deliver it by hand, but will leave it on the door if they don’t find somebody at home.

Code enforcement officer John Bavuso said he’s not focused on embarrassing residents — some may take longer because they’re waiting for help — though he said Somerville’s approach “sounds like a good idea.”

“We want people to know it’s serious,” he said. “Our whole point here is we’re trying to get a path, get [people] out of the streets, keep them safe.”

Boston officials have been ticketing those who fail to remove snow. “We’re getting a lot of calls and complaints about sidewalks not being shoveled and putting the blame on the city,” Mayor Martin J. Walsh said Wednesday. “That’s not the city’s responsibility.”

Alina Favazza, who rents an apartment in one of the Somerville properties cited Wednesday, returned and began shoveling the driveway with her husband. The pair wasn’t tackling the sidewalk, though.

“No one told us about shoveling that,” said Favazza. “Our landlord hasn’t said anything, but now that we know we’re going to message her tonight — or call her.”


Steve Annear can be reached atsteve.annear@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @steveannear.