Mailbox vs. Plow: Plow won. Margaret Wentworth / The Observer
Mailbox vs. Plow: Plow won. Margaret Wentworth / The Observer

When snowplow and mailbox meet

Something's gotta give, and when it does...

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As sure as the snow plow follows the snow storm, a mailbox will occasionally topple.

While highway departments did a heroic job clearing the roads throughout this winter’s storms, enough mailboxes were knocked down to cause some local conversation on the topic.

Theron Tompkins, Highway Superintendent for the Town of Clinton, said some damage is almost inevitable given the combined width of the plow truck and the plow “wings” (the lateral blades that actually push the snow) that are attached. He said the action of the plow can overlap the side of the road by as much as four feet and will sometimes damage or destroy a mailbox because they tend to be near the edge of the road for easy access by the Postal Service.

Local highway superintendents were asked to estimate how many mailboxes they think have been damaged this year, considering the heavy snow. In Milan, Glenn Butler thought there were three to five incidents; in Rhinebeck, Kathy Kinsella estimated six; for Hyde Park, Walt Doyle said approximately 10; for Clinton, Thompson thought he received about three to four calls per snow storm; and in Red Hook, Theresa Burke said the damage this year was “nothing exceptional.” The county estimated that it has received about 35 complaints from throughout the county.

Getting your mailbox fixed, however, is a whole other issue because you first have to determine who caused the damage, which may not be as apparent as it seems.

As Burke pointed out, the roads within all the local communities are maintained by the state, county, towns, and villages, and snow plowing is parceled out respectively.

For instance, according to Robert Balkind, the Deputy Commissioner for Public Works in Dutchess County, the county contracts out the plowing of 25 percent of its approximately 400 miles of roads to various towns and plows the remaining 75 percent with its own crews.

And the state, according to Carol Breen, spokesperson for the Department of Transportation, takes no responsibility for mailboxes that are damaged by state plows when the damage occurs “…in the normal course of business.” Breen said the state only investigates damage caused by negligence on the part of the plow driver.

However, the county and all the town highway departments in Hyde Park, Clinton, Rhinebeck, Milan and Red Hook all are willing to repair or replace damaged mailboxes. But their representatives said there are rules of the road to be observed.

First, if the damage is due to the pressure of snow plowed up against the mailbox or if the damage was the fault of a private snow-plow contractor hired by a resident, the highway departments are not going to make amends for that.

Doyle explained that if the impact on the mailbox is angled, a highway department is probably responsible; if the impact is straight-on, the damage was probably done by a private contractor.

Requests for repairs have to be done in a “timely way,” Kinsella added.

In Milan, that means the request should be made within 72 hours of the occurrence, according to Butler.

And if the highway department does take responsibility, replacement mailboxes sometimes have to be temporary until the ground thaws and replacements will always be plain vanilla, nothing fancy.

Thompkins also noted that towns and villages are under no legal obligation to repair and replace mailboxes but do so “…as a common courtesy.” Burke agreed, adding “We see what we can do.” But she also noted that after the expenses of salt, sand, and diesel, sometimes there is not much left in the budget.

On the Observer’s Facebook site, the subject generated a number of comments.
Dawn Mumbulo-Poet of Hyde Park said she has seen a lot of mailboxes knocked down this winter. “In the perfect world, our mailboxes would be safe…but when you have two feet of snow that has to be removed, then there is a very good chance that our perfect world is not happening,” she said.

Others wrote to ask what residents should do if their mailboxes are knocked down. Some praised local highway departments for their dedication, and a few, such as Jen N Brian Stokes of Hyde Park, said the damage to their box was addressed promptly.

“The highway department was very good. I called, they had [the mailbox] and came to put it back up,” the Stokeses said.

Other local readers, like Robin Bulson, said they would take care of the replacement themselves: “Mine was [knocked down] but it’s not something I stress over. It’s a mailbox. There was a lot of snow and I don’t expect the plow people to be worried about my mailbox. No worries here, I’ll fix it in the spring. .. Kudos to the plow guys this winter for being out so much!!”

In addition to contacting local municipalities, residents may also need to contact their local post office to make arrangements for mail delivery until the box is restored. George Flood, a spokesperson for the U.S. Postal Service, said in those cases, residents arrange to pick up their mail at the post office until they get a new box.

But, he added, post offices can be creative, too, delivering mail to a nearby neighbor or business or even delivering it to a temporary mail receptacle.

He recalled one creative arrangement a few years ago when a resident stuck a rake in a snow mound, hung a bucket from the rake and placed adhesive numbers and letters on the bucket to indicate the address. The post office delivered to the bucket until the mailbox was fixed.

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