After snow plows uprooted his mailbox two years in a row, Mike Semanski decided to drop a few hundred dollars on a cast-iron replacement he hopes is sturdy enough to withstand the harshest of New England winters.
“If it survives the winter, I’ll know it was a good investment,” said Semanski, 43, who lives in Reading. “I’m getting pretty tired of having to replace it every spring.”
In the past, the town has picked up the tab for replacing his mailbox. But if it happens again, Semanski will be largely on his own. Reading has joined a growing list of cities and towns in limiting how much they pay for mailboxes damaged by plows.
In Wenham, public works crews will replace downed mailboxes if the town is at fault. But officials scrutinize every claim to make sure it’s legitimate.
“If the damage was caused by contact with one of our plows we’ll replace it,” said Bill Tyack, the town’s highway superintendent. “But inspect it to make sure it wasn’t a rotted post or some other cause. There are some mailboxes that no matter what you do, you’re going to knock it over.”
Like most other towns, Wenham taps into the town’s snow removal budget to cover the cost of replacing mailboxes, which average about a dozen a year, Tyack said.
In Reading, Public Works director Jeffrey Zager said the town shelled out roughly $3,000 last year to replace two dozen mailboxes damaged by plows — including an ornate receptacle that cost $450 — even as the town cut spending and municipal services to offset budget shortfalls.
“We were one of the last few towns that didn’t limit replacement costs, and we’ve been doing it for years,” said Zager . “It’s a cost that we just can’t afford to shoulder anymore. From now on we’ll give them a check for $75 and they’re on their own.”
The Board of Selectmen approved the $75 cap on Nov. 5. Homeowners must submit a claim within 30 days of the incident, which would be subject to review, and the town will no longer tend to repairs or installation.
Reading officials said they are following the lead of other towns by tightening the purse strings.
“Most of the mailboxes in town are located at the front door, so I don’t think this is going to affect too many people,” Reading Selectman Ben Tafoya said.
Most towns maintain a 5-foot to 15-foot right-of-way from the edge of a roadway, and they say homeowners who install mailboxes in that area do so at their own risk. They won’t pay if the plow does not actually strike the mailbox.
The US Postal Service requires roadside mailboxes to be installed at least 6 to 8 inches from the edge of the curb so mail carriers can reach them from their vehicles. But that often puts them in a town’s right-of-way and in the path of snowplows.
Mailboxes have become more elaborate — and expensive — which has contributed to the problem, Reading officials said. At least a dozen companies produce products that can run upwards of $1,000.
Also, if you happen to live along a state roadway, don’t expect to get much compensation for a damaged mailbox. The state Department of Transportation won’t replace mailboxes damaged by crews plowing along state roads unless the truck went onto the property.
In Wilmington and Andover, DPW workers will replace mailbox damages by town plows if the homeowner provides sufficient evidence that the plow caused the damage. Even then, the towns will install only a pressure-treated 4-by-4 wooden post with a standard $10 black or white mailbox.
In Middleton, the town will reimburse homeowners for a damaged mailbox if the snow plow actually goes off the roadway and strikes it. Residents there are advised to install mailboxes at least a foot from the edge of the street.
Michael Hale, Gloucester’s Public Works director, said recent court decisions — including one resulting from a lawsuit filed by a Danvers man who slipped and fell on ice outside a Target store at the Liberty Tree Mall in 2002 — have increased liabilities for cities and towns when it comes to removing ice and snow from roadways.
In the Danvers man’s case, Emanuel Papadopoulos slipped on ice that was caused when snow that had been piled near a handicapped parking space melted, then refroze. The state’s Supreme Judicial Court in 2010 clarified the legal distinction between icy conditions caused by nature and those caused artificially, as, for example, when a snowplow driver pushes snow.
Papadopoulos’s case has not been settled.
The ruling means local governments are under increasing pressure to ensure that roads and sidewalks stay clear of ice and snow in the winter, even if it means taking out a few mailboxes in the process.
“We have to be very careful of our liabilities nowadays,” Hale said.
Reach Christian M. Wade at cmwade1969@ gmail.com.