Oxford Borough officials to study sidewalk regulations
By Steven Hoffman
Oxford Borough Council may have voted to amend its sidewalk ordinance at the Aug. 8 council meeting, but that is only the start of what will likely be a lengthy process to review and evaluate the regulations pertaining to sidewalks in the borough.
Council member Sue Lombardi, who serves on the borough's Codes Committee, said that a task force is being formed to undertake a comprehensive review of the sidewalk regulations. The Codes Committee is continually talking about sidewalk issues, Lombardi said.
The latest amendment approved by council will remove, at least for now, the requirement for property owners to install sidewalks at the time a property is sold. Council made the decision to remove this requirement after numerous instances where residents raised concerns that they were being forced to install sidewalks in places where it doesn't make sense to have them. Lombardi said that she has a hard time justifying forcing residents to spend money on sidewalks in some of these cases. The requirement to repair any sidewalks that are damaged will remain—that's a safety issue.
The sidewalk issue is complex and confounding, as evidenced by the fact that borough council only approved the amendment by a 4-3 vote. Similarly, residents in the audience who voiced their opinions on the subject also seemed to be divided.
Oxford officials have long wanted safe, well-maintained sidewalks throughout the borough for residents and visitors, and the sidewalk ordinance that is currently on the books was intended to increase the walkability in the borough. One obvious intent of the borough's sidewalk ordinance is to ensure that sidewalks are installed throughout Oxford so that one day all the sidewalks will connect to each other and pedestrians can walk safely anywhere they want to.
But there have been instances where the regulations in the sidewalk ordinance have been harsh or unfair to property owners, forcing them to install “sidewalks to nowhere”--sidewalks that don't connect to another sidewalk. Borough officials readily acknowledge that there are some places where it doesn't make sense to install sidewalks. There could be trees in the way. There could be a steep embankment. There may not be other sidewalks in the vicinity to connect to. Whenever one of these situations arise, or whenever property owners are required to install sidewalks that lead to nowhere, borough officials are challenged to enforce the sidewalk ordinance. To complicate matters, through the years, the sidewalk ordinance has been unevenly enforced, which leads to complaints that it's unfair to force one property owner to install sidewalks in one place when another property owner wasn't forced to do the same. Most recently, borough officials have been more strict about enforcing the sidewalk ordinance.
In the most revealing moment of the entire sidewalk discussion at the Aug. 8 meeting, borough resident Etha McDowell polled Oxford Borough Council members on who felt the borough needs sidewalks because of the health, social, and safety benefits that residents can get from being able to walk on them. In response, each council member raised a hand.
Everyone can agree that sidewalks are necessary in a borough, and the benefits of having them are easy to see. What's not so easy is figuring out who is responsible for paying for them.
Should the borough be responsible for installing sidewalks throughout the town because they provide safety to residents? Or does the burden fall to homeowners, who don't really benefit from the sidewalks, and have no authority to keep others from using what they have paid for?
McDowell said that in Pennsylvania there is a strong precedent for homeowners being responsible. She said that the borough has made progress in recent years by enforcing the sidewalk regulations, and encouraged council to continue to do this.
“These sidewalks look good and they are safer,” McDowell said, explaining that she herself suffered an injury after falling in an area where there wasn't properly maintained sidewalks.
Regarding the sidewalks to nowhere, McDowell added that, in her opinion, pedestrians will walk wherever sidewalks are put in.
“Any sidewalk that you put in—build it and they will come,” she explained.
Randy Teel, a borough resident and former council member, said that there are areas of the borough that desperately need sidewalks. He mentioned specifically a portion of North Third Street that extends from Wheeler Boulevard toward the Oxford Square Shopping Center. Many borough residents walk to and from the stores carrying bags of groceries.
“I'm tired of seeing people walking in a street,” Teel said, explaining that he's concerned that a pedestrian will one day get hit by a car because of the lack of sidewalks in this area.
Other residents talked about the economic hardship that can be caused by the requirement to install sidewalks.
One resident talked about the need for borough council to always have the latitude to waive the requirement to install sidewalks if there is a scenario where it doesn't make sense to install them.
Lombardi said that it's important for residents to let council members know how they feel about the sidewalk issue, especially when the task force is doing its research on the issue.
“We want input,” she said. “We want to do it right. We want a solution for this.”
In other business at the meeting:
Council approved installing speed humps as a traffic-calming measure on Wheeler Boulevard, pending a survey of residents who live on the street.
Council member Paul Matthews updated his colleagues about the initiative to install donation meters in a grassy area along Third Street so that residents can quickly make a donation to the Oxford Library or for parks and recreation as they walk by.
Oxford Borough Council welcomed Madison McCartney as the new junior councilperson. In this position, McCartney will attend regular council meetings that are open to the public and will offer her perspective on some of the issues that come before council, especially those that impact young people.