PRESS EDITORIAL: A better way for walkways

Agenda item No.1: Put an end to the mandate that homeowners pay the cost of sidewalk construction on their properties.

That’s not an actual item from the agenda for the proposed meeting of the Port Washington Board of Public Works to reconsider the city’s sidewalk policy. It’s our suggestion for the single most important change the city should make in the way it handles sidewalks.

The requirement that homeowners pay for new sidewalk construction is antiquated, illogical and unfair and is the root cause of the citizen resentment that has cloaked sidewalk issues in Port Washington and other communities from time immemorial.

Sidewalks are the equivalent of streets as essential public infrastructure owned by the municipality and should be paid for in the same way—with revenue from taxes levied on all of the community’s property owners.

Some Press readers may recall the case several years ago of a retired senior citizen couple living in a modest older home on a Port Washington street who were billed more than $3,000 for installation of a sidewalk in front of their house. Had the sidewalk been paid for with general tax revenue, the cost would have averaged less than one dollar per taxpayer.

Many other homeowners have had to pay sidewalk assessments, and as things stand their ranks will grow by significant numbers of residents along Hales Trail and nearby streets, which are slated for sidewalk construction.

As a result, the city is embroiled in a rather strident dispute. Hales Trail residents are protesting on the grounds that traditional sidewalks aren’t needed in their neighborhood. In response, some residents who have been billed for sidewalks have said it’s only fair that all homeowners have to get and pay for sidewalks across their property.

On the positive side, the controversy has moved Ald. John Sigwart to propose something that has long been needed—a comprehensive review by the Board of Public Works of the city’s flawed sidewalk policy.

Sigwart, who once served as Port Washington’s city engineer, wants the board to consider changing or eliminating some of the dubious features of that policy, including the requirements for new sidewalks that do not connect with other sidewalks, sidewalks on cul de sacs and concrete sidewalks on both sides of all streets.

An unfortunate side effect of the problematic sidewalk rules is that the controversies they provoke obscure the fact that the city’s overarching goal is exactly what should be—to make Port Washington more walkable.

To his credit, Public Works Director Rob Vanden Noven has been on a mission to make it easier and safer to walk along city streets. He points out correctly that walkability is an important community asset. Beyond that, it should be obvious to everyone that pedestrians should not have to walk in the street close to motor vehicles. Unfortunately, attaining that walkability goal is hampered, rather than furthered, by the city’s one-size-fits-all sidewalk policy, as the Hales Trail fuss demonstrates.

The Hales Trail residents argue that old-school concrete sidewalks with curbs and gutters on the both sides of the street would be out of place in a neighborhood that was a semi-rural area when it was developed. They suggest a well-marked pedestrian lane on one side of the street as a better alternative.

The most persuasive argument for that is that the road through the city’s own Upper Lake Park, which connects directly with Hales Trail, has a designated pedestrian lane instead of sidewalks.

That road can be heavily traveled by a mix of pedestrians, bicycle riders and motor vehicles of both the through-traffic and sightseer variety. The park it loops through is one of the city’s most popular attractions and the home of Possibility Playground. Yet a pedestrian lane suffices.

If that is good enough for the park, it stands to reason it’s good enough for Hales Trail.

The sidewalk policy should be cleaned up to allow this sensible alternative.

And then, to achieve the city’s walkability goal with more fairness and less rancor, make sidewalk construction a civic responsibility paid for by all taxpayers rather than burdening individual property owners with home-budget-busting sidewalk assessments.

 

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Ozaukee Press

Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

125 E. Main St.
Port Washington, WI 53074
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