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Janesville City Council candidates talk sidewalk

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MARCIA A. NELESEN
March 24, 2012
— The Janesville City Council candidates elected in April could determine the future of the city's controversial sidewalk program.

Nine candidates are seeking four open seats. The current council of six appears split on sidewalks, and two of the six—Tom McDonald and Yuri Rashkin—are not seeking re-election.


A new group of residents sees the election as a chance to change the direction of the city's sidewalk policies. Committee for Sensible Sidewalks hopes to convince people to vote for candidates who would abolish the city's seven-year sidewalk plan.


The city is in its second year of the plan, with an eventual goal of building 63 miles and closing gaps.


The nine candidates were asked to address sidewalk issues of equity, safety and cost.


Six support the sidewalk program, although some say they might halt it until the economy improves.


Three—Jim Farrell, Billy McCoy and Troy Zimdars—would vote against the sidewalk plan.


Jim Farrell: He does not support the current plan.

"To put in sidewalks because there is a plan does not take in account that many people will also have to have the additional expense of removing very mature trees and relandscaping their entire front yards. Removing mature trees does not make ecological sense at anytime. One tree on a property can decrease the need for cooling during summer months."


Safety is a consideration, too, he said.


"However, the city council needs to be sure that the sidewalks are truly needed in the areas that are scheduled. Some of these areas have not had sidewalks for over 27 years and accessibility to children, the disabled and walkers/runners has not been an issue."


Matthew Kealy: Kealy said he would not have voted for the seven-year sidewalk plan in 2008 but doesn't believe the city can stop it now.

"Three councils have now voted to move this plan forward," he said.


He might favor modifying or taking another look at future phases.


"But stopping a plan altogether is something I would not support."


Kealy said he understands people are having financial hardships, and he would continue to support a low-interest assessment spread over a period of time to pay for the sidewalks.


He also is concerned about the future cost to the city to maintain its own sidewalks.


"Public safety is something we have to look at, but different neighborhoods and streets present different issues," he said. "As a city, we cannot currently afford to properly maintain our roads. I am afraid 20 years down the road this will still be an issue. At that time, we will also have sidewalks that need to be replaced, which will be a future burden on city budgets."


Billy McCoy: McCoy does not support the seven-year plan.

"In these rough economic times, citizens do not have the money to pay for unneeded sidewalks. As for disabled residents, I myself am one, and I have no problem not having sidewalks in some neighborhoods. The street is available and safe."


Andy Murray: Murray supports the sidewalk plan because it promotes quality of life and safety for taxpayers. However, he would be open to discuss and review the plan to make "any sensible considerations."
DuWayne Severson: He said the sidewalk plan is appropriate in an economic climate where Janesville residents are employed and business is expanding. Sidewalks enhance the quality of the community.

But the policy was approved just as the national and local economies plunged into recession.


"Janesville is not in an economic climate to continue the sidewalk plan," he said. "Safe passage for all is important. However, undue expense for new sidewalks to an already hurting city is not prudent at this time."


Equity can be restored when the economy is restored, he said.


Angela Smillie: Overall, Smillie supports sidewalks.

"I enjoy them in my neighborhood," she said. "I appreciate the sense of community they build as well as the public safety aspect of having them."


The fairness argument has merit, she said, referring to the fact that some residents are forced to have sidewalks while others are not.


"Having said that, if the city left me little to no choice on whether I had to cut down one of my gorgeous maples to make room for a sidewalk that I felt was not needed, I, too, would be wrathful."


Smillie said she would not be able to make a decision on the sidewalk debate until she has time to gather enough information on the pros and cons of the seven-year plan.


"As your city councilwoman, I would be willing to take a look at the plan," she said.


She would gather information to "determine what impacts eliminating or modifying the program would have on those that have been dutiful in putting them in already, the impact the program has on housing values and the impact the program has on the safety of our pedestrians."


Michael Southers: Southers said he would support the sidewalk program if the local economy was strong, but it isn't.

"During tough times or when there are limited resources, one must prioritize," he said.


He would use two criteria to build sidewalks: They generally should be installed if they already are funded, and they should also be installed if they are on a Safe Route to Schools plan because the city and school district encourage children to follow those paths.


"Given that, residents (who) do not have sidewalks should use this time to begin saving for them," he said. "As the economy recovers, interest rates will rise as will the interest rate charged by the city or financial institutions," he said.


"When the local economy recovers, the sidewalk program should be pursued more aggressively.


"I personally prefer to walk on a sidewalk rather than on the road," he said.


Kathy Voskuil: Voskuil, an incumbent, supports the seven-year sidewalk plan and has voted for it in the past.

"Sidewalks have a long history in Janesville," she said.


The seven-year sidewalk plan evolved from discussions beginning in September 2007. It was created after considering the existing sidewalk plan, the Pedestrian Transportation Plan, which incorporates sidewalk neighborhood plans, Safe Route to Schools, bike trails, bus routes, arterial streets, commercial zoning and high density zoning. Public hearings were held, she said.


The intent of the plan is to close gaps in the system. The council changed its notification process to give residents plenty of time to save for the sidewalks, she said. It allows residents to hire private contractors if they can get better prices.


City staff will work around trees if at all possible, she said. If the city installs the sidewalk, the resident can participate in a loan program, and the council recently lowered the interest rates for those who participate, she said.


Sidewalks improve the ability of people to get where they need to go, Voskuil said. They provide safe places for children to walk, run, skate, ride their bikes and play. Sidewalks provide safe and level walkways for people using wheelchairs, the elderly or for people pushing strollers, she said.


When the seven-year sidewalk plan is complete, gaps in the city will be eliminated, she said.


Troy Zimdars: Zimdars does not support the sidewalk plan.

"When I was searching for a house, one criteria I had was that I would not buy (it if it) had a sidewalk to maintain. I passed on houses that had sidewalks. Am I to believe that the disabled and families with small children do not purchase homes that fit their needs?"


SIDEWALKS TIMELINE

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 2012: The council narrowly approves the second year of the sidewalk plan. 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 this spring form Committee for Sensible Sidewalks. The goal is to elect council candidates who oppose the sidewalk plan.



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