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Civic Federation Asks County to Curb Sidewalk Policy

Resolution seeks more flexibility for neighborhoods who want street improvements but not sidewalks.

The approach to Debbie Falco’s house on South Oakland Street conjures up images of a road in Sadr City, as cars have to navigate around a maze of 2-foot-wide craters and cracked asphalt.

Neighbors jokingly refer to the patchwork of potholes that dot the road between South 14th and 16th Streets as "informal traffic-calming" measures.

SIX YEARS AGO the neighborhood asked the county to install curbs and gutters along the street so that it could be repaved — something that had not occurred in more than two decades.

The project initially qualified for funding, but in November 2003 an engineer called Falco to inform her that the county had turned down the request because the neighborhood did not want sidewalks built at the same time.

"We liked the width of the road and the fact that two cars can go down the street without one having to pull over," Falco said.

As part of the county’s goal of having at least one sidewalk on all streets in Arlington, county staff began quietly implementing a new policy in 2002 of not installing curbs and gutters on streets unless sidewalks were added as well.

The result has been a series of battles between residents who believe that sidewalks are not a necessity on minor streets that see little vehicular traffic, and county staff who are trying to create a more pedestrian-friendly environment.

The result has been that some much-needed street improvements, like those on South Oakland Street, have been rejected.

Desperate to have the numerous potholes filled in, Falco and her neighbors agreed to the addition of sidewalks. Yet the construction project has now stalled due to a lack of funding, and is not likely to start anytime soon, Falco said.

If it were not for the stringent sidewalk policy, "our street would have been done years ago," she added. "We’ve been penalized and we haven’t done anything wrong."

AFTER HEARING similar tales from other residents, the Civic Federation passed a resolution this month calling on the county to show greater flexibility in the employment of its sidewalk policy and to establish a clear waiver policy so civic associations can petition for exemptions.

County officials have reacted favorably to the resolution and are exploring ways to create a new waiver process.

While recognizing the safety value of sidewalks, the Civic Federation noted that they are not needed along some cul-de-sacs, dead-end streets and historic properties.

In certain cases "priceless trees would have to be destroyed, and the atmosphere of the community would be altered if there had to be sidewalks," said John Sheperd, a member of the Glencarlyn Civic Association.

Opponents of the policy said that it adds unnecessary costs to projects, especially at a time when the county is pressed for additional money.

"Everybody knows that funding for street improvements is critically short, so let’s not spend any on sidewalks that aren’t really needed," Sheperd said.

County officials defended the current policy, arguing that mandating sidewalks improves the safety of pedestrians and motorists, and is needed to protect students walking home from school.

"In a county that is rapidly urbanizing and becoming more dense, you don’t want people walking in the middle of the street," said Chris Nixon, Arlington’s Neighborhood Conservation Coordinator.

It is costly for the county, and burdensome to residents, to have to tear up a street a second time to install sidewalks, said Ritch Viola, a transportation project manager for the county.

"In many cases we have a limited ability to get sidewalks on the streets after we have built curbs and gutters," Viola said. "You don’t want to do multiple projects on the same street."

YET BOTH Viola and Nixon admitted that there are certain circumstances- if a street is too narrow or too many trees would have to be removed — where adding a sidewalk might not make sense. Therefore county officials are pleased with the Civic Federation’s resolution to set up waiver guidelines.

"The resolution is wonderful," Nixon said. "The wording gives the staff the latitude to think seriously about it and come back with some proposals."

County staff should have a detailed proposal by later this spring and will then coordinate their efforts with neighborhood groups, Viola said.

Whatever policy is agreed to will have to be codified in the new Master Transportation Plan to ensure that there is no ambiguity in the future, Viola added.