November 2019

Thursday, November 21, 2019 - 7:00pm

Cambridge/Somerville Snow Clearance and Residential Energy Assessments

Annual Election of Officers

We reelected our current officers for another term.

Ruth Ryals, President

Susan Hunziker, Vice President and Secretary

Margaret Studier, Treasurer

Snow clearance on the Cambridge/Somerville line

The snow clearance policies and practices in Cambridge and Somerville were addressed by our two guests:

John Nardone, Deputy Commissioner, Cambridge DPW

Steven MacEachern, Acting Commissioner, Somerville DPW

The concern that put this item on the agenda was the desire to ensure that snow is cleared properly around the intersection of Beech St and Elm St, where the city limit falls, particularly at the corners, where it often blocks sidewalks. As a result of our outreach, the cities have informal agreements to ensure that snow is cleared properly there.

MacEachern and Nardone agreed that this kind of situation has several causes. The standard is to plow streets up to the curb, which accounts for the higher piles of snow along the edges of sidewalks. Also, private contractors who clear driveways can contribute to the problem when they dump snow on a cleared corner. Nardone acknowledged that some DPW drivers contribute to this problem, and education is required.

Somerville uses a 311 number to report snow clearance problems. Cambridge uses the SeeClickFix application available at If you live in Cambridge and want to report something to Somerville, you can call 617-666-0311.

A broader conversation about the respective snow clearance practices and policies of each city yielded much useful information.

Salt, brine, sand

Each city begins treating streets before snow falls. A brine solution (23% salt), which is good for walking and bike paths, can be used 24 hours before a storm arrives. Brine doesn’t work on fallen snow; salt is not effective when temperatures drop to 15°F.

For the last 10 years, Cambridge has been using treated salt to reduce the damage to corrosion on the underside of vehicles.

Sand is useful for traction when temperatures drop below 15°F; neither city recommends this, however, because the sand finds its way to storm drains, which can become clogged; this was a serious problem in 2015 as the record snowfall melted.

In response to a question about using calcium magnesium acetate, which is better for trees and animals than salt, Nardone noted that CMA is not sufficiently effective. The city does use gypsum to counteract some of the salt in soul in the early spring.


Trucks that spread salt are calibrated at the beginning of each season to ensure that they are distributing the same amount. Somerville trucks use “sensible spreader” technology that adjusts the salt distributed to the temperature. To minimize the damage salt can do to vehicles and plants, Cambridge is using technology to keep human judgement out of the decisions; when a truck stops, the salt does, too.

The disheartening deposit of additional snow at the end of a cleared driveway or around cars that have been dug out can be avoided only by digging out after plowing stops. The imperative to clear the roads trumps all other concerns.

Plowing continues long after the storm stops in part because plows do a much better job of clearing streets when they run at a slow speed.

Sidewalks, storm drains, and driveways

Somerville requires residents to clear sidewalks by 6 hours after sunrise.

Cambridge requires clearance 12 hours after the snow stops falling. Nardone noted that Cambridge has 25 miles of sidewalks that it must clear with Bobcats, and it can take longer than 12 hours to clear them. His informal rule of thumb is to not begin any enforcement on residents until DPW has cleared these sidewalks.

Both cities expect residents to clear grates over storm drains; if a drain is in front of your property, you are responsible for this.

The cities have different policies about tossing snow into the street. Somerville allows this when the temperature hits 40°F. Cambridge does not allow this, though Nardone recognizes that it’s a common practice.

Residents who need help clearing their sidewalks can contact the council on aging, which has a list of contacts of someone who can do it.

All-in Energy

To extend the benefits of energy efficiency assessments available to homeowners from Mass Save, the City of Cambridge has partnered with All in Energy, a Boston-based nonprofit, to get the word out to help Cambridge renters, landlords and homeowners living in 1-4 unit buildings.

Corey Thompson, Co-founder of All In Energy, described the mission to help residents sign up for no-cost home energy assessments through the Mass Save program and to support renters and landlords to work together to make energy efficiency upgrades.

The energy assessment is provided at no cost and takes 60 to 90 minutes; insulation is covered 75%–100% for landlords and homeowners. Improvements can save renters between $150–$400 annually.

To learn more and request a no-cost home energy assessment, go to

Property tax assessment

Although this was not on the agenda, a representative of this project asked for the opportunity to describe a property tax assessment tool that is under development.

A small team of MIT graduates is seeking to build a model for county and municipal governments can use to ensure that their property tax assessments more fair and transparent. They have worked with Chicago and Houston to gather data and evaluate assessments; they are now looking to examine information in the Boston area.

You can enter your address on their website see how their model has evaluated your tax bill. If you discover that your assessment is higher than properties with the same features, the project offers a service at a small fee to help you challenge the assessment.

For more information, go to the project website at