Sidewalks back on city agenda

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Wednesday, April 11, 2012
— Two new Janesville City Council members want to reopen what one acknowledges is a "can of worms" by putting the controversial sidewalk program on the April 23 agenda.

It's not clear what the implications would be if the 2012 phase of the seven-year sidewalk plan is canceled. The city and some residents already have signed contracts and installed sidewalks.

Council President Russ Steeber said the city could lose money if it breaks contracts. He also cited the inequity of halting this year's phase after others were forced to build sidewalks in 2011.

The council in 2008 approved a seven-year plan to build 63 miles of unfunded sidewalk. The sidewalk has been on the city's comprehensive sidewalk plan for years. Because adjacent property owners are assessed for the cost, the council delayed implementation for two years when the economy slumped.

Sidewalks became an election issue this year after proponent George Brunner resigned mid-term, eroding support on the council.

Some residents who were told to build sidewalks in 2012 formed the Committee for Sensible Sidewalks with a goal of halting the program.

Led by Jim Fowler, members of the group interviewed council candidates and endorsed five, including winners Jim Farrell and DuWayne Severson.

Severson and Farrell asked City Manager Eric Levitt to put the issue on the upcoming city council agenda, but their reasons differ.

Severson cited the tough economy.

"I'm not looking for eliminating the plan," Severson said. "I think when times are good, it's an excellent plan."

Wages have dropped, and unemployment has risen since it was passed.

"I'm just looking to pause it," he said. "I have no idea how the issue will go, but at least let's bring it up for discussion."

Farrell would like to form a committee, review the entire process and determine the "wise approach." His main concern is for elderly people who must maintain sidewalks.

"We have to look at the human element," he said.

He acknowledged that the sidewalk issue has been "revisited and revisited and revisited," but he questions whether sidewalks make a community safer and whether trees should be cut to build them.

"I know it's a can of worms," he said.

The council has mostly new people, however, and it's important to review the plan, Farrell said.

Levitt said the issue is complex because the contract with the city's installer has been signed. It is a "variable contract," meaning the city didn't know how many residents would sign up through the city and how many would hire their own contractors.

"That's why we have to look at some of the legal details," Levitt said.

Councils can change policies from year to year, and that is a function of local government, he said.

"You also want to try to instill confidence that when certain obligations are made, those obligations are held from council to council," Levitt said.

"I think it's a somewhat dangerous situation if you try to reconsider on contractual issues."

Steeber, who has struggled with sidewalks for nine years on the council, was clearly frustrated Tuesday.

"Once again, we have single-focused issues (when) the council has other things to worry about," Steeber said.

"We tried to take and resolve the issue so future councils weren't burdened with this problem, and that's why we set up the seven-year plan," he said.

If sidewalks were so important to Fowler, where was he in 2008 when the issue came up? Steeber asked.

"It didn't become a bad project until it affected his property," he said.

Steeber also noted the inequity for those who were in the first phase of the program, when miles of sidewalk were installed. Some residents already have built sidewalks this year, and trees have been removed.

Those sidewalks have been on the city's plans for years, and there is never a good time to put them in, Steeber said.

"I know that the new council members mean well and are trying to take and deal with an issue that has been portrayed to them as being very unfair and time sensitive," he said.

"We have dealt with this for so long and delayed this for so long, right now the appropriate thing to do is, in my opinion, to keep moving in the direction we have."


Here are some of the highlights of Janesville's sidewalk history:

1950s and '60s: The Janesville City Council grants exceptions to its sidewalk policy and allows two pricey subdivisions to be built without sidewalks. Previously, every home was required to have sidewalk.
1960 to 2006: Councils struggle with completing a sidewalk plan to link schools and parks and provide safe passage on busy streets. The plan is never completed because councils bow to residents who are asked to pay for their sidewalks and show up in opposition.

Through the years, residents plant trees in the public right-of-way and landscape over areas in which sidewalks were planned. Councils pass various ordinances to try to deal with the city's patchwork system, one of which required developers in the 1990s to set aside money to build planned sidewalks. Those are called funded sidewalks. Staff, meanwhile, bring forward fewer and fewer sidewalk proposals because of the political fallout. Sidewalks requested by school parent-teacher organizations and disabled residents fail during these years.

2006: The council learns that about half of the homes being built do not have sidewalks. Weary of the yearly turmoil and complaints of inequity from residents forced to maintain sidewalks and convinced that sidewalks improve safety and link neighborhoods, the council votes that all homes in new subdivisions must have sidewalks.
2008: After a lengthy study by staff and a public hearing, the council approves a seven-year plan that completes the city's sidewalk plan. Because of the plan, residents are notified years in advance when they will have to build sidewalks so they can save for them. The council delays implementing the plan because of the poor economy.
2011: The council begins the first year of the sidewalk program. Public hearings continue because the city is required to do so when it assesses residents.

September and October 2011: The council, which has members different than those who approved the 2008 plan, narrowly approves the second phase for 2012. About 200 property owners are affected by 5.1 miles of new sidewalk.

Later in the year, sidewalk proponent George Brunner resigns from the council, leaving remaining members split on the issue. Residents of a subdivision on the city's near east side who are being required to build sidewalks in spring 2012 form Committee for Sensible Sidewalks. The goal is to elect council candidates to halt the sidewalk program.

April 2012: The council appears aligned 4-3 against the sidewalk plan.

Two new council members, DuWayne Severson and Jim Farrell, both endorsed by the Committee for Sensible Sidewalks, are elected and ask that the 2012 sidewalk program be put on the agenda for discussion.

Council members Sam Liebert and Deb Dongarra-Adams have said they do not support the sidewalk program.

Council members Russ Steeber and Kathy Voskuil are in support. The seventh council member, Matt Kealy, has said he would not have voted for the sidewalk program but will not vote against it now.

Last updated: 8:10 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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