City News

Sidewalks spur emotional reactions

There is one word that can assure high turnout and lively discussion at any neighborhood association meeting – sidewalks.

Since the Central District was built before zoning ordinances required builders to install sidewalks, these amenities sometimes end abruptly, because years ago one builder considered sidewalks a necessity, and another didn't.

The primary reason sidewalks lead to controversy is that homeowners often perceive them as a taking of land, even if it is narrow strip they didn't use for anything other than lawn. When mature plantings, especially trees, are involved, neighbors are likely to be even more inflamed.

In an ideal situation, where homes are far from the street and there is plenty of room for the sidewalk and planting strip, sidewalks and curbs are highly desirable.

Curbs help direct water toward storm sewers. Sidewalks provide a safe place for pedestrians to walk, jog or stroll a baby carriage, and for children to learn to roller skate or ride a bike.

However, yesteryear's developers did not always leave room for sidewalks, and a tree that was planted 10 feet from the middle of a street 100 years ago may now be less than three feet from the edge of the street.

For example, the Van Landingham Estate recently discovered that Thurmond Place, the street at its back edge, had been repaved so haphazardly over the years that it was encroaching on the estate property by more than half a yard. So what is a homeowner to do?

First, remember that everyone involved in the sidewalk construction process has the same goal in mind – a more walkable, connected pedestrian zone.

The destruction of mature trees is contrary to that goal. If by some chance a city employee tells you that a healthy mature tree must be sacrificed for the sake of the sidewalk, talk to their supervisor, and if that doesn't work, talk to your City Council person.

It wouldn't hurt to have an arborist check the tree. Sometimes a tree can look fine, but be rotten at the core. In that case, it is better to remove it.

Finally, once all the details of how a sidewalk should be configured have been agreed upon, it may be wise to supervise construction around features you want to preserve. The communication of work plans can be like a game of telephone tag, and the message to preserve a tree may not include the instruction not to damage its roots so severely it will end up dying anyway.