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Divisive Path

Fox Hills awaits decision on potential sidewalk.

A proposed sidewalk that would guide parents and their children to school across the front yards of neighbors has residents of the Fox Hills neighborhood seeing less than eye-to-eye.

Two recent public hearings have shown a sharp split among residents over a potential sidewalk on Falls Chapel Way. Those who favor the sidewalk say it is imperative for the safety of the neighborhood’s residents, particularly children and the elderly. Those opposed say that Fox Hills is a quiet neighborhood where pedestrian safety is already secured, and whose character would be altered by a concrete swath affecting 27 houses.

"There is no pedestrian safety problem, as a matter of fact," said Joe Gebhardt, an attorney with Gebhardt & Associates, LLP, who is representing a group of Fox Hills residents who are opposed to the sidewalk. Adding the sidewalk would require the residents of the homes where the sidewalk would run — many of whom are elderly — to clear the sidewalks after each snowfall per county statute, Gebhardt said. Gebhardt said the residents have also been told by their respective insurers that their homeowner’s insurance rates would increase as a result of potential injuries that can occur along sidewalks.

Lynn Jordan, the president of the Fox Hills West Citizens Association, said that parents who walk their children to Cold Spring Elementary School need the stretch of sidewalk to feel safe escorting their children — and to avoid walking in street gutters to do so.

"It is obvious what motivates those in favor of the sidewalk — safety," Jordan said.

THE PUBLIC hearings are part of a process that the county’s Department of Public Works and Transportation is going through to determine if the public good requires the new sidewalk. The public record for submitting testimony on the matter closed on Thursday, Aug. 2, and hearing examiner Scott Reilly is tentatively scheduled to make a decision in the next two weeks.

As far as Gebhardt and the residents that he represents are concerned, the issue should be a moot point. The same process occurred in 2004, and the hearing examiner in that case concluded that a sidewalk was not in the best interest of the public at large. A lawsuit to overturn the county’s decision lost in federal district court in November, 2006, Gebhardt said.

Those opposed say that nothing substantive has changed since then, and Gebhardt questioned the accuracy of a survey that Jordan put together to convince the county to reconsider the matter. Jordan’s survey indicated that a majority of the neighborhood’s residents wanted the sidewalk, but Gebhardt said that figures put together by his firm show that a slight majority are actually opposed. Twenty-six of the 27 homeowners who would be directly effected do not want the sidewalk and roughly 85 percent of those across the street do not want it either, Gebhardt said.

"There’s been a lot of misleading information on where the community stands," said Gebhardt.

In a letter to County Councilman Roger Berliner (D-1), Maureen Potter said that residents of Fox Hills West completed a flawed survey.

"The survey was grossly imbalanced with a fifty word opposition argument and a several page supporting argument," Potter said.

Jordan said that she is sticking by the results of her survey.

"I really and truly went out of my way to make sure it was done as accurately as possible," Jordan said.

Regardless of the survey, Gebhardt and those opposed believe the matter should never have been reopened, and Gebhardt said that he thinks the county has acted improperly by allowing the sidewalk to be considered again.

"It was bizarre in 2004, but apparently the bureaucracy can’t take no for an answer," Gebhardt said. "There’s some fix in here somewhere, and that will come to the surface."

BERLINER MET with the sidewalk opponents and advocates in separate meetings last week. After those meetings he sent a letter to Reilly voicing his support for the sidewalk.

"I understand that the property owners who are affected are very much opposed to it," said Berliner. That said, he said it is something that will benefit the neighborhood at large.

Berliner said that building the sidewalk is important to ensure the safety of parents, disabled and elderly residents.

"You look at the areas that need to be connected, that is [Hadley’s] park and the school. I just felt that the larger public interest — notwithstanding the opposition — is served by a sidewalk there."

Though his voice weighs no more in this matter than that of the average resident — the matter will not appear before the assembled Council in any way — Berliner said he thought it was important for him to weigh in on the issue.

"I didn’t need to [get involved] but as one who generally believes in sidewalks and people who walk their children to school and bicycles, I felt that I had a different obligation not to take the politically expedient route and [to] express my views."

Gebhardt said that those in favor of the sidewalk are simply trying to run the issue through a county government headed now by a very pedestrian-friendly county executive in Ike Leggett (D).

Those opposed say the issue comes down to basic principles.

"The major policy issue [is] whether Potomac becomes more urbanized and gets more sidewalks and has more buses driving through the neighborhoods. I think it’s a very important test for the Leggett Administration."