Panel steps up sidewalk study; Task force seeking to craft broad policy


Tricia Hemler says there is no safe way to walk the curvy streets from her house on Tyler Drive to nearby Font Hill Park in Ellicott City because there are no sidewalks.

But Dr. Michael Zimring, who lives south of the park in the same area, says safety is his primary reason for opposing sidewalks along Old Annapolis Road near his home on Dee Jay Drive.

"If you put in a sidewalk, it encourages some people to walk down a street. That can be dangerous," he said, because speeding cars might jump a sidewalk and hit pedestrians.

That's especially true, he says, if the street is Old Annapolis Road, where vehicles often speed by as if on a racetrack.

Hemler and Zimring represent two sides of a sometimes heated issue before the county's Sidewalk Extension Task Force.

Font Hill, a subdivision south of U.S. 40 near Enchanted Forest, was built before the county began requiring sidewalks in the mid-1970s. Residents who live near Centennial Elementary School have been fighting about the issue for more than two years. Some presented their views at a task force public hearing last week.

Such is the task force's dilemma -- how to regulate a seemingly mundane suburban accessory that, in specific situations, can inspire strong passions, pro and con.

The panel's goal, says task force member Larry Aaronson, a college professor who lives in Columbia, where sidewalks are common, is to craft a broad policy that can be applied impartially to each local situation.

Recognizing a potential political quagmire, Howard County Executive James N. Robey withheld money for sidewalk construction from the county's capital budget this year. He created the task force to develop criteria for evaluating sidewalk requests, replacing the case-by-case evaluation that the county has used for years.

The committee has prepared a draft that will be submitted to Robey by Nov. 16.

It suggests that no sidewalks should be considered for a neighborhood unless three of six conditions are met:

A footpath has been worn, showing regular pedestrian use.

The sidewalk would be within one mile of an area that would attract walkers, such as a park, school, library or commercial area.

The homes fronting the proposed walkway are on sites of less than an acre.

The road in question is built in a way that makes it dangerous to pedestrians.

The road has less than a 4-foot shoulder.

The proposed sidewalk would connect to an existing one, completing a pathway for walkers.

In addition, the proposal makes school walking routes the top priority, with sidewalk extensions of less than 1,000 feet the second priority.

The policy would require approval by at least two-thirds of the homeowners whose lots would border the walkway.

Hemler said the only way she can walk to the park is along Font Hill Drive, a curving thoroughfare with trees and bushes at the roadway's edge.

"It's a complete blind curve for cars. You can't appreciate it until you walk it and almost get run over," she said.

Beth Smith, safety committee chairwoman of the Centennial Elementary Parent Teacher Association, said her group also wants sidewalks for children who might walk to school.

Others who live in the neighborhood oppose the idea, contending it is an unnecessary expense that will burden them with maintenance, snow removal and possible liability. Some don't want anything built on the edge of a lawn they've maintained for decades, though the public owns a 10-foot right-of-way along most roads.

"This is ludicrous. None of these children walk to school. They all carpool or take the bus. No one today allows children to walk to school," said Charles M. Schwinabart, who lives on his family's old homestead near St. John's Elementary School.

Andrew M. Daneker, chief of the county's Bureau of Highways, says the county usually puts $200,000 a year in the capital budget for sidewalks, which cost about $15 a linear foot.

If sidewalks are hard to come by for Howard residents, they are tougher to obtain in nearby Baltimore County, which has nearly three times the population and many older residential areas where homes were built without sidewalks, curbs, gutters or storm drains.

There, it's a 10- to 15-year wait for sidewalks, and residents have to pay for them, said Baltimore County's deputy chief of public works, Thomas Hamer.

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