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Home arrow News arrow Local News arrow Sidewalk proposal stumbles on cracks

Sidewalk proposal stumbles on cracks

A proposal to require sidewalk construction in the public right-of-way was tabled Tuesday by the city council. (Baker City Herald/S. John Collins).
A proposal to require sidewalk construction in the public right-of-way was tabled Tuesday by the city council. (Baker City Herald/S. John Collins).

By JAYSON JACOBY

Of the Baker City Herald

The Baker City Council won't require residents to build sidewalks — at least not until a task force of citizens and councilors has reviewed the proposed sidewalk ordinance.

The council voted 4-3 Tuesday to table that ordinance and create the task force.

And despite that narrow margin, two of the three councilors who voted no said they do not oppose the task force idea, but wanted the council to make a stronger statement by formally voting down the proposed ordinance rather than tabling it.

Prior to the vote, the council heard from 17 people, all but one of whom dislike at least portions of the proposed ordinance.

As does councilor Charles Hofmann.

Hofmann made the motion to table the ordinance, appoint the task force, and ask the city staff to recommend an amount of money the city should spend every year to subsidize sidewalk construction.

The city did not allocate any money for sidewalks in the budget for the new fiscal year that starts July 1.

Hofmann said he believes portions of the ordinance have merit — for example, requiring property owners to construct sidewalks when they build a new home or commercial building (or substantially remodel an existing one) on a paved street.

"I would hate to scrap the entire effort of the planning commission," Hofmann said. "They came up with some good stuff."

The planning commission voted unanimously last month to recommend the council approve the ordinance as written.

But Hofmann said he also understands why some residents are concerned about the ordinance's possible effects — in particular, the section that would require sidewalks to be built when a home or commercial building is sold.

"We are your neighbors," Hofmann told the audience of about 60. "We are not in the business of cramming anything down your throats, no matter what you read in the paper.

"If something's bad for the city of Baker, we try not to do it."

Bad is a word several of the people who spoke to the council Tuesday emphasized as they described their feelings about the ordinance.

Some questioned even the need for such a law.

David Richards said he's not convinced the city's lack of sidewalks is endangering pedestrians, as some proponents have suggested.

Councilor Beverly Calder, who voted for the first two of three required readings of the ordinance, described it as "a plan for a safer community."

Richards asked the council if the city has studied traffic records to see whether the absence of sidewalks in certain areas has contributed to any fatal accidents involving pedestrians and cars.

City Attorney Tim Collins said he remembers three accidents the past 25 years in which a pedestrian died.

But there's no way to determine whether a lack of sidewalks played a role in those deaths, he said.

Richards said he thinks the council needs to consider traffic accident data before approving an ordinance that could force him and many other property owners to spend thousands of dollars for sidewalks.

"I think we're afraid of a ghost that doesn't exist," he said.

Several speakers told the council that if the city requires sidewalks, it ought to start with individual blocks or neighborhoods, and gain residents' support rather than forcing them to build sidewalks. Speakers also urged the city to contribute some money to the work rather than leaving property owners to pay the entire bill.

The proposed ordinance, on the other hand, would create sidewalk "islands" that don't connect to any other sidewalk, opponents said.

Bill Howe drew a round of applause when he termed the proposed ordinance "sidewalks to nowhere."

Vern Hull criticized the ordinance for similar reasons.

"I'm not opposed to sidewalks but I am opposed to this piecemeal plan," said Vern Hull.

Hull said he also believes the ordinance could lead to violations of the federal Americans with Disabilities Act.

That act requires sidewalks to include curb cuts and ramps for wheelchairs, Hull said.

Ramps normally are built at street corners, he pointed out, yet the city's proposed ordinance also would apply to properties in the middle of a block, where a sidewalk would not connect to a street corner.

Where, Hull asked, would wheelchair ramps be built in those cases?

Bill Knechtel, who lives on Foothill Drive, a paved street with curbs and gutters but no sidewalks, said he and his wife, Dorothy, drove "every street in Baker" and were surprised at how few sidewalks exist.

"I agree sidewalks are nice, but I don't think sidewalks are on the must-have list," Knechtel said.

He suggested sidewalks create more safety hazards than they solve, especially older sidewalks marred by cracks and buckled by frost heaves and tree roots.

Rocky Desimini pointed out that even if the city requires residents to build sidewalks, it "can't force people to walk on sidewalks."

"I think there are better places to spend money," he said.

Most speakers Tuesday focused on the portion of the ordinance that would require sidewalks to be built within one year of the sale of a home or commercial building on a paved street.

Dave Still, a Baker City property appraiser, said the ordinance "means a great deal to a lot of people buying or selling a home."

Still said he's required to report on appraisals any possible costs the property owner might incur. That list includes the lien the city would place on properties where sidewalks aren't built within a year, as the ordinance would require.

Still said mortgage lenders might not close a loan until sidewalks are built.

Teresa Uriarte, a local real estate broker, said she worked on three recent home sales that she believes would not have happened had the ordinance been in effect.

Calder suggested the council approve a pared down version of the ordinance that requires sidewalks when a new home or commercial building is constructed or substantially remodeled, but not when a property is sold.

But both Hofmann and councilor Jeff Petry said they don't think the city should approve any part of the ordinance before the task force has considered the entire proposal.

Although Mayor Nancy Shark joined Calder and Petry in voting against Hofmann's motion, she said this morning that with hindsight she probably would have voted yes.

The reason she did not, Shark said, is that she wanted the city to scrap the proposed ordinance and "start over."

But she said this morning she believes Hofmann's motion "accomplishes the same thing" because she expects the task force will make major changes in the planning commission's version of the ordinance.

Shark said she believes the city must share in the cost of building sidewalks if it is to convince residents that any sort of ordinance is worthwhile.

"We're going to need to contribute," Shark said. "I think that's fair."

Petry said he agrees with both of Shark's statements.

He said he wanted the council to vote no on the third reading of the ordinance rather than tabling it.

"Why not just make the decision now that we're going to stop it, start over and make things right," Petry said.

However, like Shark he believes the council's decision to convene the task force is essentially the same as killing the proposed ordinance and starting over.

The council will decide at its next meeting, on July 9, how many people to appoint to the task force.

Councilors will choose its members July 23.

Anyone interested in serving should call City Manager Gordon Zimmerman at City Hall, 523-6541.

 
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