Many single-family home-builders will be exempt from a requirement to create sidewalks on their property, Sandy Springs City Council decided July 7. That’s an “interim step” while the council continues to revise its controversial sidewalk policy, with a final update expected within four weeks.

“I think this is a good step,” Councilman Tibby DeJulio said before the council unanimously approved the policy change.

Under previous rules, any project requiring a building permit was required to install a sidewalk on the property’s street frontage, if one did not already exist. It also has an alternative option to pay into a sidewalk construction fund instead.

Now people building or renovating a single-family home will be exempt—with one big exception. Single-family projects within the city’s Sidewalk Master Plan area—mostly along major roadways—must still create sidewalks.

Last year, the council heard growing public concern that the sidewalk requirement was slamming residents with sidewalk costs that could run north of $10,000. And the policy could result in “sidewalks to nowhere”—disconnected sections that will never link up.

The council has spent months wrangling over the topic with no concrete results. At the June 16 council meeting, Mayor Rusty Paul complained about debating sidewalks “ad infinitum [and] ad nauseam.”

At the July 7 meeting, Assistant City Manager Jim Tolbert reported that he met this week with city councilmen about the policy. The single-family exemption was one item of consensus, he said. He said that change will let some stalled projects move through the pipeline and give homeowners some certainty if they’re planning some construction.

“[The previous policy] has even held up some people in my area who want to renovate,” DeJulio said.

In response to questions from council members, city officials said all projects must provide proper stormwater drainage gutters or devices. Also, if a property is on a corner where one side is within the Sidewalk Master Plan area and one side is not, a sidewalk will still be required on that Master Plan frontage.

The councilmen appear to agree the current sidewalk policy has become outdated. At the June 16 meeting, DeJulio recounted some of the policy’s history. He said the Sidewalk Master Plan was created years ago because there were so few sidewalks and the city had no money to build them. Six to seven years ago, the sidewalk-creation rule was applied to projects.

“It was just a way to start getting them built,” he said.

At that June meeting, the council started kicking around some ideas for revising the policy. One suggestion was to reduce the buy-out fee, but there were concerns that choosing a number on the spot was arbitrary. Another idea was requiring property owners to provide right-of-way, not an actual sidewalk, but city staff members noted that the city already gets dibs on rights-of-way along streets.

What the council ended up doing, at the suggestion of City Manager John McDonough, was tabling the issue for further discussion.

Tolbert said that the July 7 single-family exemption is an “interim step.” A full policy revision should come before the council within four weeks and possibly sooner, he said.

–John Ruch