City Council frequently wrestles with methods to expand the city’s sidewalk network, and its Sept. 15 meeting brought another bout.
The council approved a new buy-out formula for homeowners who are required to build sidewalks, but split in a contentious vote over funding a long-demanded Brandon Mill Road sidewalk.
For months the council has wrangled with its controversial sidewalk creation policy, which had been sticking some homeowners with added costs that can reach more than $10,000. The council previously changed the policy to exempt single-family houses not on the city’s Sidewalk Master Plan streets, as well as renovations and accessory-use projects.
At the Sept. 15 meeting, the council approved a final change: a payment in lieu of building a required sidewalk. Assistant City Manager Jim Tolbert said the buy-out will be allowed if a city sidewalk project is already planned for the area, or if the property owner faces a “special hardship” that would make the sidewalk difficult.
The buy-out amount will be $100 per linear foot of sidewalk. Tolbert said that amount, long debated by council members, is “a balance we think reasonably covers the cost, but doesn’t put an unreasonable burden on the property owner.”
Defining a “hardship” will be a “judgment call” of Public Works, Tolbert said, adding, “It’s kind of like obscenity. You know it when you see it.”
While the council unanimously supported that policy change, it divided on how the Brandon Mill project best fits into the Fiscal Year 2016 sidewalk program budget. Mayor Rusty Paul cast the tie-breaking vote and ruled bickering councilmen out of order along the way.
For years, residents have demanded a Brandon Mill sidewalk, and the council has long prioritized it, especially because the street serves the Spalding Drive Elementary School. However, councilmen and city staff say the project is expensive due to the topography and is still in the concept stage, with much of the right of way still to be acquired.
Marty Martin, the city’s Capital Improvement Programs Unit Manager, said the sidewalk program has about $1.3 million available to allocate. He recommended devoting $639,000 of that to completing the remaining 1,200 feet of the Brandon Mill sidewalks.
Councilmen Gabriel Sterling and Andy Bauman introduced dueling alternative plans to reduce that amount and to free up funds for other projects. Those projects would be determined by a scoring system the city recently introduced.
Sterling suggested devoting $239,000 to Brandon Mill, which he said still equated to fully funding the project because the work schedule would come close to next fiscal year’s budget anyway, when the council could deliver the remaining funding.
“Every single council since we have existed” has made Brandon Mill’s sidewalk a priority, Sterling said.
Bauman called for funding only the $65,000 design phase of the Brandon Mill project, saying it would give a better sense of the true costs.
The Brandon Mill sidewalk must be done, Bauman said, but “I am concerned it’s paved with gold.”
“Are we saying we will do this project at any cost?” Bauman asked. He was concerned about property owners seeing an incentive to make the city purchase right of way instead of donating it.
Martin said that without the full $639,000, right of way acquisition could be slowed by a few months, but acknowledged that negotiations could begin.
Councilman Ken Dishman noted that the council could always allocate general funds to the project if needed.
Sterling claimed that Bauman had supported his plan in a private conversation, leading to a debate that had Paul telling them to “hush” and gaveling them out of order.
Councilman Graham McDonald declared impatience with any compromise on the Brandon Mill budget and reluctance “to put money towards our number one priority.”
“How long are we going to kick the can?” McDonald asked.
Bauman’s plan drew a 3-3 tie vote from council, then prevailed when Paul cast a tiebreaker vote in favor. Paul grumbled about his “great reluctance of the mayor getting involved in this question” that he said “gets down to angels dancing on the head of a pin.”
The overall sidewalk program budget passed 5-1, with McDonald casting the no vote.