Council undecided on handling of sidewalk petition backlog

May. 28, 2014 @ 09:20 PM

The city’s fiscal 2014-15 capital-improvements budget will include $400,000 for sidewalk construction, but elected officials don’t agree yet on how they’ll use the money.

City Manager Tom Bonfield and Public Works Director Marvin Williams have proposed using it for “petition” projects, 11 different sidewalks residents have formally asked the city to build.

But none of the projects carries a high ranking in the city’s Durham Walks master plan for sidewalk construction, a document the council approved in 2006.

And the discrepancy is drawing complaints, not for the first time, from City Councilwoman Diane Catotti.

“Why did we do the Durham Walks plan?” she said, arguing that when officials have a formal master plan on the shelf, they should follow it. “None of these are in the top 50.”

The highest-ranked petition project, targeting a 271-foot stretch of Monmouth Avenue between North Buchanan Boulevard and Watts Street in the Trinity Park neighborhood, in fact clocks in at No. 53 on the Durham Walks priority list.

The Durham Walks project rankings are 235 projects deep. The lowest-ranked petition sidewalk project, on Green Street from Watts Street to North Gregson Street in the Trinity Park area, is No. 226 on the Durham Walks list.

The petition process formerly allowed neighborhoods to ask the city for a new sidewalk, in return for a pledge on their part to help pay for it via a special “assessment” on adjoining homeowners on top of their usual taxes.

But last year, the council agreed to stop taking new petitions and follow the Durham Walks rankings in deciding future sidewalk-construction priorities.

The move came at Catotti’s urging. She argued the petition process was favoring relatively low-priority projects that have backing from affluent or politically well-organized neighborhoods.

The Durham Walks plan, by contrast, is a citywide engineering and planning assessment that scores prospective projects on factors like their proximity to schools.

The 11 remaining petition projects are the backlog left on the books following the council’s decision to close the petition window. Williams and his staff estimate they will cost around $597,223 to complete.

Each originally made it on the petition list with the council’s approval. A project on South Roxboro Street in the Hope Valley Farms area is the oldest, dating from September 2006. A project on Grandale Drive near the Parkwood neighborhood was the last to make it on, in April of last year.

Williams noted that city officials always told residents of the affected neighborhoods there was “no funding” immediately at hand to follow through on their petitions. But many check in with Public Works each year to see if that’s changed, he said.

Wednesday’s discussion made it plain that Catotti’s view on the matter isn’t universally shared by her colleagues.

The Monmouth Avenue project would go in next to Councilman Eugene Brown’s house and has been on the petition list since 2007.

“Obviously there’s no favoritism given to any member of City Council because the sidewalk has yet to be built,” Brown quipped.

He argued that officials can’t simply abandon the petition list, and also that they shouldn’t assume the Durham Walks plan necessarily got things right.

Brown noted the Monmouth Avenue project figures to be relatively inexpensive – Public Works estimates $14,905 – and will fill a gap in the sidewalk network around Duke University’s East Campus and the George Watts Elementary School.

“I would wager in terms of walking and walkability, at least 100 to 200 people a day would use” it, Brown said. “This is one citizen who’d be a little upset if the city comes back and says, ‘We told you we’d do it, but didn’t tell you what decade.’ That would be disingenuous, not just to me but to a lot of citizens. We need to be careful here.”

But Catotti noted that Durham Walks was supposed to identify the sidewalk projects in the city that could yield the biggest bang for the buck.

“There might be thousands of people who might use” a high-ranking project on Garrett Road that lacks petition backing, she said. “That’s the whole point of a study.”

Bonfield pointed out that the council can simply reserve the $400,000 in the budget, leaving until later in the fiscal year a decision on how to prioritize projects. Members agreed that’s likely the best strategy for now.