'No silver bullet' for sidewalk problem in Janesville
"Welcome to the club."
That's what Elkhorn's city administrator said when discussing Janesville's sidewalk wars.
Janesville surely is a charter member of the club, but other cities have joined, too.
Dan Thompson, executive director of the League of Wisconsin Municipalities, called sidewalks a "perennial topic" that heats up in some communities more often than others.
If there weren't legitimate opinions on both sides, "it would have been resolved a long time ago," Thompson said.
Sidewalks lead to passionate discussion, said Brian Amundson, acting city manager in Eau Claire. He has videos of sidewalk debates in Eau Claire, but he's sure they could play in Janesville if he just changed the name of the city.
"We've probably heard everything you've heard in Janesville," Amundson said.
The histories of and reasons for or against sidewalks are similar between communities.
Subdivisions in the 1950s and 1960s—when the car was king—often were built with wider streets, more cul-de-sacs and no sidewalks to retain a rural feel. Residents sometimes bought there specifically to avoid sidewalks and their maintenance. At the same time, postal workers began delivering mail in those areas via vehicle, negating the need for sidewalk, Amundson said.
As lifestyles changed, ordinances changed with them.
But times are changing again.
Providing safe access for children, the elderly and handicapped is of new importance. Urban planners advocate neighborhoods of high density and walkable streets to save energy.
"Policies should change as technology changes," Thompson said.
Janesville's sidewalk issue has simmered for years.
Beginning in the early 2000s, city councils decided at least some sidewalks were needed for safety. The council in 2008 passed a seven-year program to build and assess residents for 63 miles of sidewalk in existing areas.
But a group of neighbors challenged the ordinance and organized politically. That resulted in a halt to the sidewalk program and the formation of a study group, which has held two meetings.
Janesville didn't write the book on that one, either.
Amundson joked that the Eau Claire Public Works Department is responsible for the creation of several neighborhood associations that initially formed to fight sidewalks.
Cities with the least sidewalk controversy appear to be those that either set policies years ago and stuck to them or those that simply have not added sidewalks to areas lacking them.
Janesville in 2006 passed a policy that requires sidewalks in all new subdivisions.
Eau Claire is seeing the fruits of a similar ordinance passed in 1974, Amundson said.
"That changed the world a little bit," he said.
That's not to say all controversy ended.
An Eau Claire ordinance passed in 1985 allows developers to request exceptions for particular issues, such as steep slopes or short cul-de-sacs. In addition, the Eau Claire City Council evaluates every major street project to decide whether sidewalks should be added.
"We've rebuilt a substantial amount of residential streets where the sidewalk didn't exist," Amundson said. "We've talked about those streets gradually over 25 years.
"We have not brought forward a lot of retrofit projects, but when we do, they can be very emotional for a lot of folks involved."
Beloit wrote an ordinance in about 2000 that requires sidewalks on one side or both sides of streets in new residential subdivisions depending on set criteria, City Manager Larry Arft said.
Unlike Janesville, Beloit has not tried to significantly retrofit areas, Arft said.
Beloit adheres to an eight-year rotation to maintain existing sidewalks, and those lead to yearly "dust-ups," Arft said.
"They tend to be unpopular," he said.
'Everybody should pay'
Elkhorn has had flare-ups through the years, too.
"I've been here for 14 years, and we've probably been in discussion about this for 14 years," City Administrator Sam Tapson said.
"It's fits and starts. We get a ruling, then we stop. It seems like everytime we initiate something, we run into a controversy."
Elkhorn is different than many cities because the city pays for sidewalks and their subsequent repair.
"I know we're probably way out in left field when it comes to the non-assessment situation, but again, we just accepted the fact that sidewalks don't confer a unique benefit but are more of a public benefit that everybody should pay for," Tapson said.
That lessens complaints, although many still complain about shoveling, he said.
Elkhorn's policy now is to add or repair sidewalks as part of major street reconstructions.
The goal is to create a walking-friendly community, Tapson said.
"From a staff perspective, our job is to interpret what councils want and create a policy statement," he said.
But that's also why years down the road, "it can all go out the window," he said.
Milton has a hybrid system and, like Janesville, has different ordinances governing different stretches of sidewalk. The controversies seem to run in streaks, City Administrator Jerry Schuetz said.
One Milton ordinance requires that owners of new developments pay for sidewalks. Another requires the city to pay for sidewalks being installed in areas built prior to 1996.
Milton continues to write grants to create safe pedestrian walkways as part of its comprehensive plan, especially because major highways go through Milton, Schuetz said.
Amundson gave credit to Janesville for trying to address its pedestrian needs.
Some Janesville residents have suggested taxing those with no sidewalks to pay for the sidewalks of those who do have them or requiring people who do not have sidewalks to build them when they sell their homes.
"There's no silver bullet," Amundson said. "It's an emotional issue, and each community has its history."
Thompson agreed: "Not only do I not only have any answer, I just told you that nobody has any answer.
"If this were easy to answer, the city of Janesville would have resolved it a long time ago."