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Sidewalk Fallout

Neighbors divided over sidewalk gap as project moves forwards.

Monica Cho is legally blind and can’t see more than a few feet in front of her. She has no centralized vision and can not drive. Because of that she chose to live in the Fox Hills West neighborhood, where she could walk her children to Cold Spring Elementary School.

“The first time I walked them to school I realized how dangerous it was,” Cho said. Making the trip down Falls Chapel Way involves traversing a gap along the road that has no sidewalk, and the children in the neighborhood who walk to school must share the edges of a road that is much more heavily traveled than when it was built 35 years ago.

Lisa Lawrence moved to the neighborhood last November and utilizes public transportation to get to and from her job. Part of her commute takes her down the gap of Falls Chapel Way that has no sidewalk, something that proved especially difficult during last winter’s ice storms. Forced by the ice three feet into the street, twice she was nearly hit by cars despite wearing a red blinking light on her back.

“One man driving on the other side of the road stopped and yelled at me and asked if I was crazy,” Lawrence said.

THE DAYS of pedestrians sharing Falls Chapel Way with motorists may soon be over. A recent study by the Department of Public Works and Transportation concluded that installing a sidewalk to eliminate the existing gap would be in the public interest. This study comes three years after a similar 2004 study and set of public hearings led a hearing officer to conclude that the project should not go forward.

Holger Serrano, the Deputy Chief of the division of capital projects for the Department of Public Works said that the hearing officer in that case concluded that too many trees would have to be removed and that there was not enough public support to warrant closing the sidewalk gap.

“The two reports are identical except for the conclusions,” said Lynn Jordan, the president of the Fox Hills West Citizens Association. “We just needed a change in circumstances.”

Jordan said that she hopes the final decision will be different this time around with increased public support and a different political atmosphere. Under former County Executive Doug Duncan the project was denied, but under Ike Leggett, who has taken a strong stance in promoting pedestrian safety, the project has gained traction.

A public hearing at the Executive Office Building in Rockville on June 28 indicated that residents are sharply divided on the issue.

THOSE WHO support the project cite the need to protect children and parents who make the trek down Falls Chapel Way on their way to Cold Spring Elementary School each morning, and back again each afternoon.

Standing atop a chair to reach the podium, Monica Cho’s 9-year-old son Andrew said that he is scared by the cars that pass him when he walks in the road, and that the morning dew in the grass makes his feet wet when he walks to Cold Spring with his mother each morning.

“If I had a sidewalk I would feel a ton safer and my feet wouldn’t get all wet,” Andrew Cho said.

“Whether they walk or ride their bikes it makes sense to remove children from the roads as they [go] to school,” said Amy Ullman.

Busing to Thomas S. Wootton High School ceased in the Fox Hills neighborhood several years ago, meaning that many high school students make the same walk, said Betsy Robbins, a Fox Hills resident.

Senior citizens who walk for exercise and anyone else who may be walking from some areas in the neighborhood to Hadley’s Park are forced to share the road with cars, delivery trucks and pickups hauling trailers full of landscaping equipment.

Closing the sidewalk gap is simply a matter of keeping up with the times, said long-time Fox Hills resident Dean Holt.

“For many years Falls Chapel Way was a relatively quiet, dead-end street,” Holt said. That has since changed, Holt said. “Now it’s a relatively busy thoroughfare … [and] over the years [the road] has seen a significant increase in traffic citations and accidents.”

THE MAIN objections to the project come from the 27 homeowners who live along the gap of sidewalk, Jordan said.

“Most of them are vehemently opposed,” Jordan said. Those objections are based on the potential loss of property value that a sidewalk would incur, and the aesthetic damage that such a project would produce.

Jean Motter lives in Manassas, Virginia but grew up in the neighborhood and visits her parents weekly. Like many other children who have grown up in the neighborhood, Motter said that she walked to Cold Spring Elementary everyday and never had a problem. Motter said that she never felt unsafe walking along the road and that building the sidewalk would be unfair to the neighborhood’s residents.

“When a family moves into Fox Hills West they know what they’re going to get,” Motter said. “Why is it fair for someone to move into [the neighborhood] and decide that they want to change the neighborhood — that they want sidewalks?”

She said that the overall benefit of the project would be minimal, as many of the streets in the neighborhood don’t have sidewalks.

“If you’re putting in one sidewalk on one street, I don’t see how that benefits the neighborhood. If you can’t get to the sidewalk, what’s the point?” Motter said. “If you’re going to put them throughout the neighborhood that’s a different story.”

Most of those who testified on Thursday spoke in favor of the project. The bulk of testimony from those who are opposed to the project will be presented at a second public hearing scheduled for July 19, said Dan Gebhardt, an attorney representing several residents opposed to the project.

“Our group is not unsympathetic to safety concerns … but we are strongly opposed [to the project] for several reasons,” said Gebhardt.

“We went through a similar process in 2004,” Gebhardt said. “Today, just three years later, the proposed project is still not necessary.”