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Despite early conflicts, Janesville sidewalk group makes progress at meeting

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MARCIA A. NELESEN
June 28, 2012
— The sidewalk committee was three hours into its Wednesday meeting when it appeared members had hit a roadblock.

Members already had agreed on criteria, but the nine members still could not agree to require sidewalk on the five city streets that ranked highest for need.


The committee has agreed on a consensus rather than a majority-rules approach, and several members had come up with reasons why sidewalks along Wuthering Hills Drive should not be built.


For instance, a stretch of city owned-property was too low-lying, committee member Dan Warden said. He also had talked to many widows who live along Wuthering Hills who were against sidewalks.


Committee member Bob Yeomans suggested a stop sign to help people cross the street to use the sidewalk on the other side.


Scott Bever said the bigger question could be, "What issues have we had because we haven't had a sidewalk for 40 years?"


"We're wasting our time," committee member Russ Steeber finally said.


"This does not bode well," said Chairwoman Carol Tidwell, adding the committee was back at square one.


"These are the highest ranking streets based on the criteria we developed. ... How does it not get a sidewalk?" she asked.


The animosity was building in the room, committee member Tom McDonald said, and the committee still could not get past the highest-ranked streets. He recommended the committee disband and bring to the council the criteria and the funding recommendations it had decided on.


The criteria include traffic counts and a location's proximity to schools, bus stops and public facilities.


"Frankly, I'm disappointed that we've found such intransigence in each other," committee member David Hyde said. "I'd have to agree with Tom, at this point, we've done what we can do."


Yeomans then gave an impassioned speech.


"So, we have a little hurdle here," he said. "What is it we need to do to overcome our hurdle? What is it that's not working?"


It does not work to bring in issues or criteria that have not been discussed, Tidwell said.


That should be brought to the person's attention, Yeomans said. Hopefully the member would not be offended.


"This is something the committee can work through," he declared.


And it did.


Members looked at major streets as a whole, including Wright Road, Wuthering Hills and Skyview Drive, and concluded those met committee's criteria.


The committee was asked to study the 2012 portion of the seven-year sidewalk plan and report back to the council in hopes its contractor could still install some sidewalk this year.


Warden reluctantly recused himself from discussion at the point the committee reached the sidewalk in front of his home.


He first argued that the area has no walkers, and all the children are driven to school.


But committee members said the street has a high ranking because of nearby schools, churches and a bus stop.


"I think the criteria speak for themselves," Steeber said.


Tidwell advised Warden to recuse himself from this particular segment because it was "humanly impossible" to be objective about his own property.


"If it were me, I would not want be in your shoes," she said. "I think you're in an untenable situation."


City Manager Eric Levitt also advised him to abstain.


If members are talking about a whole program, it is not an issue, Levitt said. But in discussing Warden's own property, that is a legal gray area.


The committee's decisions are hard because nearly all the property owners are so against sidewalks, Bever said. He said he would be tempted to agree with Warden's objections to sidewalks in the area as well.


"But consensus-wise, if it meets the criteria we all agreed on, we have to move on," Bever said.


At the end, Steeber thanked Yeomans for urging the committee to continue.


"I think we've made phenomenal progress," he said.


Councilman Matt Kealy, who was observing, thanked the committee, too.


"Wow, at 5:30, I thought you'd come back with nothing," he said. "I commend you. ... I think this is what the council is asking for."


The committee will report to the council on Monday, July 9. It plans to ask for another two weeks to conclude its discussion on the 2012 program.


The next sidewalk meeting is set for 2:30 p.m. Wednesday, July 11.


Panel suggests new ways to fund city sidewalks

Janesville


The Janesville sidewalk committee will suggest to the city council some radical changes in how the city pays for sidewalks.


Currently, the city assesses adjacent property owners for sidewalk.


The committee plans to recommend that the city:


-- Pay for city-ordered repairs to existing sidewalk.


-- Tax or assess residents who have no sidewalk to pay for the sidewalk scheduled on the seven-year sidewalk plan.


The suggestions arose from several discussions involving the fairness of requiring residents to pay for sidewalks, which all agreed are a public good. Conversely, many property owners have already paid for sidewalks and should not be expected to pay for more with their property taxes.


Committee member Tom McDonald, for instance, argued sidewalks were the responsibilities of property owners, just like their roofs, while member Bob Yeomans said sidewalks are not even on homeowners' properties and are for public use.


"I have a problem with an individual property owner having to pay for something that the city does for the benefit of all the citizens," Yeomans said. "It's completely different than a roof or a driveway."


McDonald said he could agree with that idea only if an equitable way could be found to pay for sidewalks other than by assessing all property owners.


Public Works Director Carl Weber suggested that all residents who do not have sidewalk pay to install the sidewalk in the seven-year program.


Finding the legal mechanism to tax just certain residents is probably the largest hurdle to this suggestion, City Manager Eric Levitt said.


"But, I think you have to think outside the box if you're ever going to get there," he said.


Committee and council member Russ Steeber said it was "an interesting concept."



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