Council conclusion: Sidewalk scrutiny shows Norwalk policies are Norwhacky

Norwalk Common Council members have been researching alternatives to Norwalk’s sidewalk ordinance.

NORWALK, Conn. – The sorry state of Norwalk sidewalks continues to be an issue for Norwalk council members, some of whom took the time last month to research what other municipalities do regarding that section of their infrastructure.

Fun fact: the only other municipality in Connecticut that tries to get homeowners to fix adjoining sidewalks by threatening them with fines is Westport, Councilman Bruce Kimmel (D-At Large) said.

That hardly works, he said, as the process – if it’s even started – meanders slowly on with a hazardous condition inviting pedestrians to trip and break a leg. But if the city were to take on sidewalk repair itself there are liability issues, he said.

Kimmel said he called the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities (CCM) to research ordinances regarding sidewalks. An ordinance in Bristol was referred to widely. A city official can order a homeowner to fix a sidewalk; if that doesn’t happen within, say, 30 days the city can do the work and then bill the homeowner, he said. Unpaid assessments become a tax lien, he said.

A 2001 court decision found that the homeowner would not be liable for injuries suffered by a pedestrian crossing the sidewalk unless that homeowner had done something to hide the dangerous sidewalk. But if the city tells a homeowner to fix a sidewalk and then lets the issue slide, the city is also liable.

Kimmel revealed all of this at last week’s Public Works Committee meeting, beginning a debate.

“My feeling is dispense with the fines, fix it in 30 days or we do it,” he said.

Department of Public Works Director Hal Alvord said such work needed to be done at a sufficient volume to avoid paying through the nose. Council members Jerry Petrini (R-District D) and David McCarthy (R-District E) said there were people who didn’t have the ability to do the repairs.

“I think we have an obligation as a city to make these repairs,” David Watts (D-District A) said. “Indigent people are using these sidewalks, indigent homeowners.”

He said the city should foot the bill, that it is a quality of life issue, that other cities and even countries are doing a better job with sidewalks. Fixing them is necessary to attract young residents, he said.

“To say that ‘We can’t do’ it is just the model of the city,” he said. “We can’t do street lights. We can’t do sidewalks. We just can’t do anything. You know what? I am getting sick and tired of this because we have an obligation as a city to protect the people and move the city forward and not always come to these meetings and tell us what we can’t do.”

Put it out in the next bid process, he said. Ask contractors to fix sidewalks as they repair roads.

“I agreed with a lot of things you said as regards getting the sidewalks repaired, but I’m going to come to a ‘reasonable people come to reasonable decisions approach’ and say I went and researched it,” McCarthy, the committee chairman, replied. “… All the top 10 cities in Connecticut, from Bridgeport on down, not a one pays for it out of their own pockets. Not any one city that I can find says ‘We’re going to fix sidewalks when we fix roads.’ It would take a lot of convincing on my part.”

Many Norwalk neighborhoods have zero sidewalks, he said. Most of the council members present don’t have sidewalks in front of their houses, he said.

“We are putting a potential tax burden on, I don’t know what the percentage is, but some large percentage of people that don’t and won’t have sidewalks,” he said.

Ah, but there are 140 miles of sidewalk in the city, Watts said.

“I understand your argument, but that’s no different than privatizing garbage when you live in Rowayton or someone lives in Rowayton, who doesn’t use city services. As councilmen, we don’t do what is in the best interests in only our neighborhoods we do what’s in the best interest of our city.”

“Let’s be a modern city,” he said.

“We need to stop leading from behind,” he said. “Stop looking at other cities and saying, ‘well they’re not doing it, therefore we can’t do it.’ We need to stop trying to appeal to people like some kind of second-rate Stamford and try to get into the fact that Norwalk is a beautiful city and we can take a lead on sidewalks.”

Igneri suggested banking money by putting it into the budget year after year, letting it accrue to the point that a neighborhood could be fixed.

Kimmel said they needed to study the magnitude of the problem, asking Alvord for an inventory in time for the next meeting. He pushed the liability issue, saying the city is open to a lawsuit. The footpaths are inconsistently fixed, he said.

“My feeling with a problem like this you have to look at the consequences of not doing anything,” he said.

Watts said the council members who represent urban Norwalk should not be penalized by the council members who represent suburban Norwalk. “Like you’re doing right now,” he said.

McCarthy referred to his research in reply.

“I’ve got a whole state behind me, that’s not fair,” he said, drawing laughter. “Do your research, come up with whatever city you can find that does that. I’ll say ‘Wow,’ that does it. I’m saying I’ve got an entire state behind me.”


11 responses to “Council conclusion: Sidewalk scrutiny shows Norwalk policies are Norwhacky”

  1. Independent Voter

    Seems to me that the question not being asked is: who mandated the inclusion of the sidewalk on a property in the first place? Was it the homeowner? If not and it was the city that mandated it, then why is the homeowner on the hook for repairs?

    The other question that McCarthy raises – regarding the burden that non-sidewalk property owners would shoulder – would be well and good were it not for the fact that there are many taxpayers in the city who pay for services that may not directly benefit them.

    For example, Oak Hills golf club, where a substantial amount of city revenue is spent to benefit only 10% of the population, or the approximately 60% of my property taxes that go to support a school system that I have no stake in, not being a parent.

    And before someone counters with the inevitable “schools benefit everyone because they attract new homeowners” argument, let me say this: when property taxes are in line with the market value of my home, that will be a valid point. Not before.

    Back to the sidewalk issue: let’s say an ordinance is passed that mandates that the property owner is responsible for repairs to the sidewalk that existed prior to owning the property. If said property owner is on the hook for paying for city infrastructure, why not grant a deduction in his/her property taxes accordingly?

    Somehow the concept of fair play that Watts brought up needs to start happening in this community. The city is continually asking more and more and more of its property owners and what we can expect is an ever diminishing return on the services that we’re paying for.

  2. Mike Mushak

    I don’t understand Mr. McCarthy’s statements. He says no city in CT pays for sidewalk construction or replacement, yet our own city has done it on numerous occasions, including on Camp St, Ponus Ave, and Lowe St, and currently on Cedar St, all in the last few years. How about West Ave, Wall St, Water St, North Main, and Washington Streets? I could go on and on with a list of streets where Norwalk installed new sidewalks. When our own city is doing it already, and all other cities I know of including Stamford and Bridgeport and Darien and New Canaan and Westport for starters do it, how can he say no city in the state does it? Where does he get his information?
    I would love to invite Mr McCarthy and the other Common Council members to take a tour of some of the miles of older crumbling sidewalks in the city, preferably in wheelchairs or pushing baby carriages to represent the elderly and disabled and young families that make up a big part of our population. I would only request that their insurance be up to date and an ambulance escort us, as we would all be taking our lives in our hands. It would be an eye opening experience for Mr. McCarthy and the rest of the Council, promise. I will be sending out the invitation soon!

  3. Bruce Kimmel

    The problem is complicated (sorry, but I had to say that) because our ordinance may in fact be contrary to state law. The corporation counsel’s office is currently looking into that. The case law seems to indicate that the municipality cannot transfer liability to the property owner on sidewalk or footpath issues.(It can transfer liability on snow removal issues.)It also states that a town cannot force a property owner to fix it; that after a period of time, if the property owner refuses to fix the sidewalk, the city must create safe sidewalk conditions for pedestrians and can then recover costs via a lien or in some other fashion
    Also, we may be violating our own ordinance, which requires the city to fine property owners who do not fix their sidewalks. Not only do we not fine them, in many cases, we do the work ourselves and pay for it — if it is part of a nearby road paving project.
    The first step in dealing with this issue, in my opinion, is to get our ordinance and procedures straight; at least consistent with state law, and to minimize the city’s legal exposure.
    Then we can get into a variety of related issues, all of which are aimed at moving forward on our sidewalks. But we should keep in mind that not one city in the state actually pays for these repairs. To do so would be so expensive that we would always have a long list of repairs that we might not be able to afford.
    The bottom line is, we have a problem and we must figure out a way to address it that is consistent with state law and our own ordinances.

  4. Jlightfield

    @bruce Kimmel. The problem is complicated because Norwalk has never undertaken any survey of who owns what sidewalk. There are sidewalks owned by the City, by the State, by the various taxing districts, by utility companies and then finally by property owners. The ordinances that Norwalk operates under are neither enforced, clear and in compliance with master plans, zoning site plans, etc.
    The sidewalk design guidelines that Norwalk aspires to, and I’m being sarcastic, were drawn up in the 80s by engineers. I’d like to think we have evolved in how we think sidewalks should function since then. A good start would be a task force that would look at ownership, functional areas and regs to produce a task list of things to change. Corp council should not be the default answer to policy change. I think Shakespeare had a pretty good idea about lawyers which I will re appropriate to what they do to policy change.
    A start for discussion should be this great street scape guidelines doc from Stamford. http://www.stamfordct.gov/sites/stamfordct/files/file/file/streetscape_guidelines.pdf
    And if you are wondering why streets ape instead of a micro focus on sidewalks I’ll circle back to it is complicated because context is everything.

  5. Tim K

    Interesting concept, jlightfield. It would seem that Norwalk’s planning department should take the lead on developing guidelines/policy/master plans and DPW should just execute. Does P&Z really “plan” the vision of the city or is that left to redevelopment agency to come up with in specific pockets town?

  6. Oldtimer

    If any of those council members who live in districts with no sidewalks were to investigate, they would find their property lines are set back some distance from the pavement and the City claims ownership of a much wider right of way than the pavement so that the roadway can someday, theoretically, be widened and sidewalks can be built, all on city property. In commercial districts, the City requires special permission for business owners to intrude on “City” sidewalks with signs or tables for dining. It seems they are City sidewalks sometimes but property owners sidewalks when they need work, or even snow removal. The City bought sidewalk size snow removal machines years ago but soon let them fall into disrepair and stopped using them. It defies logic for a “public” sidewalk to be the responsibility of the adjacent property owner. When that made sense, roads were also considered private property and the property owners could erect toll gates as they pleased and turn back anyone who could not pay the toll. That is where the word “turnpike” originated.

  7. Oldtimer

    By now you should have figured out that McCarthy pulls “facts” out of thin air to support his positions on issues. Don’t you remember how quick he was to jump on the outsourcing bandwagon when Alvord said it was a good idea that would save the City 17 million over a ten year period ? Or, don’t you remember all the terrible accidents he cited on Rowayton Ave when he was trying to sell the idea of widening that road and changing the grade ? Seems he pull those statistics out of thin air, too. Like Reagan said, “trust, but verify”. A lot of what McCarthy says cannot be verified.

  8. non partisan

    140 miles of sidewalk @ 4 ft average width @$8/sf = $23.6 million

    Say 80% of the sidewalks will need to be replaced over the next 10 years = appx $2m/yr

    Other municipalities enforce sidewalk repairs and maintenance requirements for sidewalks in the right of way that abuts private property. If Norwalk is not doing this than it surely is not acting in the best interest of all stakeholders. If legislation needs to be amended than this should be high in priority.

    A part of a comprehensive plan may be for the city to bid out annual sidewalk replacements for city owned property and obtain a $/sf for additional replacements for private property owners. If a private property owner needs a sidewalk replaced (either by their desire or to satisfy a violation) they could tag along on the city contract or hire their own contractor (who would be required to take out the required permits). The cost for this program would be minimal to the city budget, and at the same time would ensure the work is done correctly, and would be a a great service to the property owners who would not incur the hassle of permits or managing a contractor. Win- Win – Win

  9. Question: Is this why the entire length of Dry Hill do not have their sidewalks replaced now that the repaving is done; is it up to the homeowners to do it???

  10. TG

    I have to agree with the whole puzzling nature of homeowners “owning” public use property. I mean, okay, I get that it is what it is and I’m happy to clear snow so kids can still walk to school and what not. I care about people’s safety. BUT my mind allows me to see that as a courtesy, as opposed to simply complying with an ordinance, because in truth, when I look at it that way, it just makes me kind of mad. I dont care whether it’s the norm everywhere. Just because it’s done doesn’t make it right. I mean, when i look outside my window at my sidewalk, it’s not there for my benefit. I see dog walkers, tge occasional commuter on the way to the train station, an occasional school kid or wanderer using it. If there were no sidewalk, would i expect to see these people all over my lawn? Um, no. •They’d be on the street, and that could make the city liable should something happen. So the sidewalk seems to benefit the city much more than the property owner. Did you ever see a real estate ad touting the awesome sidewalks as adding property value?

    Still, here’s the thing. Sidewalks are an excellent idea, and should be part of any forward thinking city that intends to be a sustainable less-motorized model for the future, along with bike lanes- (good ones). If Norwalk really wants to attract people, all aspects of the city should scream livable. our poor sidewalks or lack of sidewalks just scream “hey buddy, look out!” As a city asset, the city has the responsibility to maintain them (unless homeowners created the need for repair), and to create more of them, without the expectation that the house it happens to be in front of will take responsibility for that patch of pavement. The problem is that much of what we do here in Norwalk looks like piecemeal fixes instead if long term commitment to planning and maintenance. Honestly, how hard can it be to fix sidewalks compared to roads? You can’t tell me it would not be easier and cheaper for the city to do this in one shot than for each homeowner to do it on their own schedule with different workers.

  11. jlightfield

    @Tim K, it can be the planning and zoning commissions that initiate the policy to develop design guidelines. But it should be in conjunction with DPW as there are issues concerning the technical aspects that could use engineer vetting. It has always frustrated me, that the support for initiating new policy is so difficult in Norwalk, when it should just be part of the regular work boards and commissions engage in.
    The existing street specs are in fact a document that was created in the 1980s by DPW. It is the only spec we have which explains the continued issues of streetlights in the middle of sidewalks, trees, landscaping that make no sense, random signs and sidewalks that look oh-so-80s. There are so many new products that make costs go down, improve performance and longevity, yet Norwalk relies on concrete and brickwork materials that have proven to have a high incidence of failure. A quick look at new sidewalks in SONO, with crumbling curbs, flaking surfaces and cracks should be enough to warrant a revision asap. Alas it takes much time and effort to makes these things happen.

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