FEW things are as picturesque as a thick blanket of freshly fallen snow glistening in the sun. Except, of course, when the blanket covers the sidewalk and you're the designated shoveler.

For many homeowners, shoveling snow ranks right up there with other dreaded domestic activities such as clearing clogged drains, weeding the lawn and cleaning dead, wet leaves out of rain gutters. The difference, however, is that at least the drains, grass and gutters are theirs. The sidewalk, on the other hand, usually belongs to the city.

''There are two basic rules,'' said Ross Sandler, director of the Center for New York City Law, a nonprofit educational organization at New York Law School. ''The first rule is that the city is responsible for the condition of the public streets and sidewalks.'' And that, Mr. Sandler said, includes the responsibility for removing snow from public sidewalks.

But, he said, ''the second rule is that the city requires individual land owners to clear the snow from sidewalks abutting their property.'' And he added that the courts have upheld the right of local governments to require property owners to maintain public sidewalks adjoining their property.

Indeed, most homeowners — whether in city or suburbs — realize they have some responsibility for shoveling their sidewalk after a snowstorm.

Meg Reuter, a lawyer and managing editor of City Law, a newsletter published by the Center for New York City Law, explained that in New York City, neither the city nor the homeowner is required to shovel while snow is falling. When the snowing stops, however, the city has a ''reasonable time'' to insure that the sidewalks are cleared.

While the law does not specifically define how much time is reasonable, Ms. Reuter said, at least one court has ruled that it would not be unreasonable for the city to take as much as two days to remove 22 inches of snow from a public sidewalk.

The city, however, is not nearly as liberal in giving homeowners time to shovel sidewalks outside their homes.

''The city's Administrative Code requires owners, occupiers and managers of property abutting the public sidewalk to clear the snow from the sidewalk within four hours after the cessation of any snowfall,'' Ms. Reuter said, adding that shoveling can wait until the next morning if the snow stops falling between 9 P.M. and 7 A.M.

''You can get a ticket for not shoveling,'' she said, explaining that a first violation carries a $50 fine while subsequent violations carry $100 penalties.

In most states, individual municipalities have similar laws requiring snow removal from public sidewalks within a specific time period. The time periods and penalties for a violation, however, vary from town to town. But even if there were no laws requiring shoveling, many homeowners would shovel anyway to avoid potential liability in the event someone slips and falls and is injured on a slippery sidewalk.

What many homeowners do not know, however, is that in some cases the safest way to avoid liability for a slip and fall on a snow-covered sidewalk is to do nothing at all — no shoveling, no plowing, no salting — and pay whatever fines are imposed.

''It sounds odd,'' said Mr. Sandler, who is also a law professor at New York Law School. ''But in New York, the landowner who shovels negligently is at risk of being held liable for a slip and fall. The landowner who does nothing cannot be held liable at all.''

The reason for the odd result, Mr. Sandler said, is rule No. 1 above: The city is responsible for the condition of the public streets and sidewalks.

And while the city can shift responsibility for shoveling public sidewalks to private homeowners, it cannot shift responsibility for injuries. ''For decades the city has been operating under the assumption that in New York, a city cannot shift liability for sidewalk defects to abutting landowners,'' Mr. Sandler said. As a result, he said, unless a homeowner makes things worse by shoveling poorly, the homeowner cannot be held liable for injuries sustained by others.

That could change, however, Mr. Sandler said, as the result of an appellate court decision rendered earlier this year in the case of Hausser v. Giunta, which involved a woman in Long Beach, L.I., who sued her next-door neighbor because of injuries sustained in a fall on the neighbor's sidewalk.

''The court held that the belief that a city could not shift liability for slips and falls to private property owners was a misunderstanding of the law,'' he said, adding that the case is described in detail in the current issue of City Law. ''The city just has to pass a local law to do it.''

Well, guess what?

''A bill has been introduced in the City Council,'' said Eugene Borenstein, chief of the tort division for the city corporation counsel's office. The bill, Mr. Borenstein said, would shift liability for injuries sustained as the result of defects on public sidewalks to the owners of property abutting them. It doesn't matter, Mr. Borenstein explained, whether the ''defect'' is the result of unshoveled snow, cracks in the concrete or a misplaced banana peel.

And while an injured person would still have to prove negligence and would still probably name the city in the suit, he said, the city would be able to shift liability to point the finger at abutting property owners who fail to properly maintain their sidewalks. And that, Mr. Borenstein said, could save taxpayers a significant portion of the nearly $50 million the city paid out last year alone for personal injury claims resulting from sidewalk slips and falls.

Michael Clendenin, a spokesman for the New York City Council, said that while the proposal currently would make all owners of property abutting a public sidewalk liable for injuries sustained on the sidewalk, the Council was hoping to find some way to carve out an exception for single-family homeowners. The bill, he said, is in the Council's Transportation Committee.

''There haven't been any hearings and there is no movement on the bill right now,'' Mr. Clendenin said.

In addition to providing homeowners with greater incentive to shovel and shovel well, however, passage of the bill could have a negative impact on the cost of liability insurance — particularly for owners of larger buildings.

''This means that co-ops and condos in the city will face far more lawsuits from pedestrians and building residents who trip and fall on poorly maintained sidewalks,'' said Bruce Cholst, a Manhattan lawyer who specializes in co-op and condominium law.

Mr. Cholst said that while most claims would be covered by the building's insurance carrier, the increase in claims paid could have an adverse impact on a co-op or condominium's claim history, thereby driving up its annual premium.

''That could prove far more costly than shoveling and maintaining the sidewalk,'' he said.

Drawing (Tom Bloom)