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Path forward in filling sidewalk gaps isn't always clear

Ken Lucier stands in his yard at 1222 19th St. N., where a propsed sidewalk would've been constucted. Lucier and his neighbors along 19th Street North in Moorhead are opposed to the project to add sidewalks to their street and recently the city council scrapped it. David Samson / The Forum

MOORHEAD — Ken Lucier has lived on 19th Street North in Moorhead for nearly 40 years and, like his neighbors, thinks sidewalks there are unnecessary and a waste of taxpayer money.

"There's no need for a sidewalk," Lucier said. "I've not talked to anyone who wants it."

After Lucier and his neighbors turned out at a City Council meeting earlier this week to oppose the proposal, city officials scrapped a plan to build sidewalks in the area.

In the wake of that decision, council members charged City Manager Chris Volkers with forming an ad hoc sidewalk committee to suggest some clear guidance on sidewalks. Moorhead requires walking paths in new subdivisions but has no clear policy for subdivisions without them, City Engineer Bob Zimmerman said.

But even in cities that have set policies, adding sidewalks to existing neighborhoods can be a touchy subject, largely due to the costs for homeowners. Though state and municipal laws in Fargo and West Fargo require owners of properties that lie along streets in incorporated areas to build sidewalks, the cities have been flexible at times about the mandate.

Regardless, Lucier let city officials know he'd be happy to join the sidewalk committee to help set some rules in Moorhead.

"There is a lot of inconsistency," he said.

Where sidewalks end

In Fargo-Moorhead, portions of the cost of sidewalks and other street projects are usually paid for by adjacent property owners in the form of special assessments, which are a form of project-specific property taxes. It creates a natural reason for property owners to oppose sidewalks.

But the benefits of sidewalks are obvious. They give pedestrians a safer alternative to walking on roads with vehicles and provide better access for the disabled. As early as the 1950s, governments have recognized the increased safety afforded by sidewalks, according to a 1957 report by what's now the American Planning Association.

Still, areas of Fargo don't have sidewalks, said Kristy Schmidt, a city engineer responsible for sidewalks. While the vast majority are older industrial areas with few pedestrians, there are residential areas sidewalk gaps.

One example is along the south side of 17th Avenue North starting southeast of Washington Elementary School. If the city built sidewalks there, it would have to cut down some trees and essentially eliminate the driveways of several houses.

In West Fargo, much of which was developed in the last two decades, there are some developed areas without sidewalks that were that way when they became part of the city, City Planner Larry Weil said. That includes some rural subdivisions annexed into the city and much of northern West Fargo, which was once the city of Riverside before merging with its larger neighbor 25 years ago.

Because state and city law does require sidewalks, if someone were to complain the city would build sidewalks, Schmidt said.

Moorhead would have to respond to complaints about missing sidewalks, too, if they were filed under the Americans with Disabilities Act, Zimmerman said. For instance, if a disabled person complained that she couldn't get to the supermarket in a wheelchair, he said, the city would have to provide a pedestrian route. But it would not have to be the most direct route.

Lacking a policy requiring sidewalks in established neighborhoods without them, Moorhead has likely more gaps than Fargo and West Fargo. But sidewalks are often proposed in Moorhead's older neighborhoods when the city repairs streets there, Zimmerman said.

"When we look at these projects, we look for gaps in the sidewalk system," Zimmerman said.

Divisive issue

That's what Moorhead city staff saw in the the 1200 and 1300 blocks of 19th Street North. The sidewalk abruptly stops shortly after 10th Avenue North when 19th Street forks into 18½ Street North, which is lined with sidewalks on both sides all the way to 13th Avenue North, unlike 19th Street.

Most residents didn't appreciate the attention. In public hearings April 5 and 10, the majority of feedback was against the sidewalks. The City Council was more torn in its meeting Monday, April 24.

Council member Mari Dailey, who lives near the area, said it's an isolated neighborhood without heavy traffic, plenty walkable without sidewalks. The other council member who represents the northside's 1st Ward wasn't as certain.

"I see both sides of the coin," Sara Watson Curry said. "It is a value to have a walkable, bike-able moveable community."

Council member Joel Paulsen said he didn't see why any residential street shouldn't have sidewalks. A compromise — a sidewalk on just one side of the street — didn't go anywhere.

"If we did put sidewalks on one side, is it up to us to decide which side to go on? Because I don't see any controversy there," council member Chuck Hendrickson said, sarcastically.

Picking one side "sets the neighbors up for wars," council member Melissa Fabian said.

Because it levied a special assessment, the plan required seven of the council's eight members to approve it. Eventually, council members agreed to approve the project without the sidewalks, causing the residents at the meeting to applaud. The sidewalks would have added a little more than $50,000 to the cost of the project, which is about $1 million.

It won't be the last time Moorhead leaders tackle the subject.

"It should be further discussed," said council member Brenda Elmer. "It does come down to lot prices and getting people to move to Moorhead. There's a middle ground."