Our Views: City of Janesville should stick to sidewalk plan

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Saturday, November 23, 2013

“Sidewalks are a public safety issue. They connect a neighborhood. They provide a network through that neighborhood, where people get to meet and know each other. … Sidewalks are kind of like the string that ties the neighborhood together.”

—George Brunner, former Janesville councilman and police chief

When the Janesville City Council again considers sidewalks Monday, it should stick to the 2014 plan recommended by a committee it appointed last year.

Sure, frustrated and even angry residents likely will fill the council chambers. Some owners of the 274 properties on the five miles of sidewalks earmarked for construction next year sense a divided council and possible capitulation. These residents have been trying to sway council members to kill the plan or, at a minimum, exclude their streets.

Any council member who might bow to that pressure should keep a few things in mind.

First, no solution is simple, nor will it please everyone. This debate has been raging for decades after elite neighborhoods goaded past councils into piecemeal decisions. Those councils made exceptions that fuel arguments and pit neighbor against neighbor.

No criticism is new. Residents complain about costs to install, repair and shovel sidewalks. They argue the walkways gobble green space, topple trees and wreck landscaping.

Sidewalks, however, are an accepted part of city living. They unite a community and are desirable in any good city. Sidewalks provide safe paths for young and old. For these reasons, the Gazette Editorial Board backed the city staff’s seven-year plan to plug gaps in Janesville’s network of sidewalks.

The council wisely voted several years ago to require that sidewalks be installed when new subdivisions are built. It also made sense to delay the seven-year plan amid the recession before approving the first installations in 2011. Last year, critics formed an opposition group, Citizens for Responsible Sidewalks. It and council newcomers pushed the council to form the committee to re-evaluate the plan.

That committee included two councilmen and six residents. Some members opposed sidewalks, yet the committee agreed to criteria for evaluating placements and to rule by consensus. That means all had to agree. The committee recommended the scope of the remaining plan be cut more than in half, and the council approved that. The committee also recommended deferments so owners in some locations could delay installations five or 10 years unless their properties are sold

The second point is this: If the council rejects the 2014 plan, what would it say to residents it forced to install and pay for sidewalks the past two years? What would it say to committee members who invested much time, anguish and dedication into 22 meetings doing a thankless job? Likewise, what signal would it send to residents the city might ask to serve on future committees?

Third, if the council drops 2014 installations, it likely could never agree to finish any of the plan. Sidewalk gaps this committee saw value in filling likely would remain forever.

Most residents have sidewalks. We sense that a silent majority supports sidewalks and, like the committee, sees their value.

Critics are right. This annual debate drains too much staff and council time. The council could tamp down the controversy by reaffirming its commitment to the plan and supporting deferments.

Come Monday, that’s what it should do.

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