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Home arrow News arrow Local News arrow City looks to fill perceived cracks in sidewalk ordinance

City looks to fill perceived cracks in sidewalk ordinance

Auburn Avenue is one of many Baker City streets with sidewalks in front of some homes, but not others. (Baker City Herald/S. John Collins).
Auburn Avenue is one of many Baker City streets with sidewalks in front of some homes, but not others. (Baker City Herald/S. John Collins).

By JAYSON JACOBY

Of the Baker City Herald

Baker City Councilor Beverly Calder hopes a couple of clarifications will curb residents' concerns about the city's proposed sidewalk ordinance.

But some critics think the city should scrap sections of the ordinance and find a different way to pay for sidewalks in residential areas where there are none.

The ordinance, which Calder supports because she believes the city needs more safe places for people to walk, would require home and business owners to build sidewalks in several situations where they're not now mandated.

Presently, sidewalks are required only in new residential subdivisions where the streets are paved and have curbs and gutters, and in the commercial-zoned sections of East Campbell Street.

The proposed ordinance would require owners of both residential and commercial lots to build sidewalks when the property is sold, when a new building is constructed, or when an existing one is added to or substantially remodeled.

The City Council is scheduled to consider the third and final reading of the proposed new ordinance during its June 25 meeting.

During the June 11 meeting, at which the council approved the second reading by a 4-2 vote, several city residents said they think the ordinance would harm homeowners who can't afford to pay for sidewalks.

Councilor Jeff Petry, who along with Mayor Nancy Shark voted no June 11, said the potential costs worry him, too.

"I like the idea of going forward with sidewalks, but when you get down to paying for this, there's people who can't afford it," he said.

Changes could answer concerns

Calder said a common concern she has heard about the proposal, and one she hopes the clarifications will address, deals with its references to a "paved street."

According to the ordinance, the requirements to build new sidewalks would apply to properties that border a paved street.

But what the ordinance does not do, Calder said, is define the term "paved street."

This is a crucial point, she said, because city officials do not intend to require residents to immediately build sidewalks along paved streets that don't also have curbs and gutters.

In those cases — and there are several such streets in the city — the city probably would grant the property owner a "future improvement assurance" — basically a delay in enforcing the ordinance.

The assurance would describe the circumstances in which sidewalks would be required in the future; in the case of a paved street, when curbs and gutters are built.

Alan Blair, chairman of the city's planning commission, which drafted the sidewalk ordinance and voted unanimously to recommend the council pass it, said the commission originally proposed to require sidewalks only on paved streets with curbs and gutters.

Although that language wasn't in the ordinance the commission approved, Blair said he endorses the change Calder suggests.

Another concern, articulated by real estate agent Kathye Corn during the June 11 meeting, involves the requirement for new sidewalks on residential and commercial properties that are, as the ordinance states, "sold or otherwise conveyed to a new owner."

Corn said she believes the ordinance, as written, would apply in several situations other than a traditional property sale — for example, if a name is added to or removed from a property deed due to a divorce or death.

City Attorney Tim Collins said he plans to re-write that section of the ordinance to clarify that sidewalks would be required only when a new owner actually assumes possession of a property.

Blair said the planning commission never intended the sidewalk ordinance to apply in cases where, for example, a property deed is transferred to a living trust — a relatively common situation, he said.

Some concerns remain

Corn said she doesn't think the changes the city intends to make will alleviate her concerns about the ordinance.

She thinks that rather than revising it, the council should just get rid of certain sections altogether — specifically the one requiring homeowners to build sidewalks when a property sells.

The other sections of the ordinance make sense, Corn said.

She said she agrees with the planning commission that people who build a new home or business, or substantially remodel one, should be required to construct sidewalks.

"That's reasonable," Corn said.

Nor does she oppose the section of the ordinance requiring sidewalks when a commercial property sells.

Corn said, for example, that she would not be upset if the city required her to build sidewalks at her Campbell Street office.

But the people Corn thinks would suffer most if the council approves the ordinance as written are those who want to sell or buy an existing home.

She thinks it's unfair to require sidewalks to be built simply because a home changes hands.

But she thinks the best way to achieve the city's goal of filling in gaps in sidewalk construction — a goal Corn endorses — is through Local Improvement Districts (LIDs) rather than the proposed ordinance.

How does an LID work?

In an LID, the city would hire a contractor to build new sidewalks and repair old crumbling ones. Property owners in the district would pay for the work, either in a single lump sum or by financing the cost through the city over many years.

In the proposed ordinance the council is considering, long-term financing is not an option.

Corn said she understands that with LIDs there are no guarantees.

If the owners of at least two-thirds of the property in an LID oppose the plan, there would be no sidewalks.

But Corn doubts that would happen.

She believes most residents would support LIDs to build sidewalks because they would have more time to pay. The total cost would be lower, too, she said, because the contractor would build thousands of feet of sidewalk rather than 100 or less.

It's also possible that the city could pay a portion of the cost for new sidewalks, although the council has not set aside any money for that purpose in the current budget.

Petry agrees with Corn that an LID might be fairest way to build sidewalks.

"If you're going to force people to do sidewalks, and they can't afford it, you have to give them an option to finance it," Petry said.

City didn't find savings in LID

The city has suggested sidewalk LIDs before.

City officials proposed a citywide LID in the late 1980s, but few residents were interested, Collins said.

Cost was the main reason for the lack of interest, he said. The city's estimated cost, inflated by the federal law requiring relatively high wages for public construction projects, was two to three times more than individual property owners could have sidewalks built for.

In that respect little has changed during the ensuing years, as money remains the main issue.

The city estimates a sidewalk five feet wide, the width the city requires, would cost from $3.50 to $6 per square foot — or $875 to $1,500 per 50 feet of property footage.

A possible solution to residents' concerns about those costs might be to exempt lower-value properties from the sidewalk ordinance, Collins said.

The council has not discussed that idea.

Collins said councilors could, for example, exempt owners if the cost of sidewalks was more than, say, 5 percent of the property's assessed value.

Many properties probably would qualify under those standards.

For example, building sidewalks on a corner lot with 150 feet of property footage could cost $4,500. Using the 5 percent standard, the owner would not have to build sidewalks if the property was worth less than $90,000.

Blair said he likes the concept of exempting owners of properties with low values with potentially high sidewalk construction bills.

That's an idea the planning commission did not discuss, but probably should have, he said.

Who's to blame?

Ultimately, Blair said, if there is blame to be laid for the city's lack of sidewalks, or of a consistent policy governing when they're required to be built, it should be directed not at today's city planners, but at their predecessors many decades ago.

By failing to require residents to build sidewalks when they built new homes, those city officials ensured the current situation, replicated in many parts of the city, would prevail, Blair said.

In many neighborhoods there are no sidewalks at all, and in others they are scattered.

"They weren't visionary," Blair said of previous city administrations.

Calder agrees.

"In a perfect world the sidewalks would have been put in when a house was built," she said.

Making up for those lost decades will be neither easy nor cheap, Blair said.

But he believes the city needs to do the job anyway.

"The really hard part," Blair said, "is that if we never start, we will never finish."

 
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