OZAUKEE PRESS EDITORIAL: Who should pay for sidewalks? Everyone.

This week’s quiz: What controversial issue is guaranteed to frustrate the elected representatives of every city and village in Wisconsin at one time or another?

That’s easy. The answer is sidewalks.

It’s sidewalks because municipalities are saddled with protocols in dealing with these essential features of communities that are so archaic, confusing, illogical and inequitable that they are certain to enrage property owners.

Currently, it’s the Village of Fredonia’s turn to deal with sidewalk rage. Residents of two subdivisions recently protested the village policy of requiring them to pay half of the cost of installing sidewalks across their properties.

The Village Board listened and agreed to instruct the Public Works Committee to reconsider the policy. This was done over the objection of Village President Don Dohrwardt, who said, “When an improvement is made to the property, the owner should pay for it.”

Dohrwardt’s comment unintentionally pointed to the reason paying for sidewalks is such a dependable source of irritation. Sidewalks are not an improvement to private property. Rather, they are a public improvement that benefits every resident of the community. Sidewalks are public thoroughfares comparable to streets and like streets should be paid for by all taxpayers.

The ancient notion that public sidewalks should be paid for by private property owners derives from the fact that many sidewalks cross private land, unlike streets that exist in public rights of way. Though defending this is an ongoing headache for communities, there is an obvious financial incentive to keep sidewalks as much as possible out of municipal budgets, especially in these times of state-imposed levy limits that constrain local spending.

That doesn’t make it right, of course, which accounts for the confused state of sidewalk policies. With logic on their side, citizens in some municipalities have been successful in persuading officials to relent to some extent in charging property owners for sidewalks. The result can be sidewalk rules that benefit some property owners but not others.

Fredonia’s sidewalk policy properly requires subdivision developers to pay for the installation of sidewalks. The complaining homeowners, however, have the misfortune of living in subdivisions developed by a company that went bankrupt before fulfilling its sidewalk obligation and are now facing the prospect of paying half of the cost of putting in the sidewalks.

They deserve a break and it looks like they might get one, but the Village of Fredonia—and every other municipality as well—should be working toward a goal of making sidewalk policy uniform and fair for everyone: Developers should pay for sidewalks in new subdivisions; all of the community’s taxpayers should pay for other sidewalk installation and upkeep.

The Fredonia Village Board did the right thing in referring the sidewalk policy to the Public Works Committee for possible revision, but it erred in also telling the committee to determine whether the properties in question need sidewalks.

Of course, they do. No one should have to walk in the street.

It’s common for residents of neighborhoods without sidewalks in any community to resist them. In addition to a reluctance to pay for sidewalks, they don’t see them as improvements to their properties. On the contrary, they might not like the citified look of concrete walks and may even think their privacy could be threatened by pedestrians walking across their property. And maybe they don’t like the idea of having to shovel snow from sidewalks (a near universal and sensible community-service requirement in most communities).    

But the fact remains, no one should have to walk in the street.

The State of Wisconsin’s Pedestrian Policy Plan 2020 offers guidance, starting with a vision statement that should be followed by every Wisconsin community: “By 2020, Wisconsinites who must walk, or choose to walk, should be able to do so safely, comfortably and conveniently.”

Fair, uniform sidewalk policies would make that goal achievable.


Click Here to Send a Letter to the Editor

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
(262) 284-3494


User login