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Sidewalk ordinance stirs debate

September 8, 2010

Plans for a new Senior Enrichment Center continue to clash with with a city ordinance requiring sidewalks with all new developments.
Rupert L. “Rudy” Johnson, executive director of the Golden Triangle Planning and Development District, made what he called a “promise” Tuesday to the Board of Aldermen that he would take the agency out of Starkville and into one of the other nine counties it serves after attempts to persuade members to grant him a variance to the city’s sidewalk ordinance.
“Folks, there’s nothing wrong with altering things,” Johnson said, arguing that one size does not fit all. “There’s nothing wrong with common sense.”
Plans for the senior center the have it located behind the GTPDD building in what many people call Starkville’s industrial park, which others say is not zoned industrial and has become a center for business development and, thus, needs sidewalks to provide safe access to employment centers.
Members of the Transportation Committee who drafted the sidewalk ordinance implored the board to uphold the decision it made last year to mandate sidewalks with new developments.
Jim Gafford, who chairs the panel, said that a town that has ignored the importance of sidewalks for so long must start somewhere.
Joe Fratesi said that a community expresses what’s important to its residents through its ordinances.
“Now’s the hard part,” Fratesi said, challenging the board to hold steady to its word when some people begin protesting it.
Dr. Bethany Stich made an argument for value over cost, arguing that the city would move backward in the effort to grow economically if officials bent its own rules.
“We wouldn’t pull up a street we no longer wanted,” she said, contending that sidewalks were just as important for the city’s overall health and vitality.
Stich provided information from studies revealing that 62 percent of Oktibbeha County’s residents living in or under poverty levels lived inside the city, and, therefore would be burdened by car expenses.
Sidewalks also increase property
values from 4 to 15 percent — benefits the city’s budget could reap, Stich said.
Other community activists and people who travel pedestrian style chimed in with support for the committee.
Robbie Ward, founder of the Johnny Cash Flower Pickin’ Festival, discounted the “sidewalks to nowhere” cry, explaining that the Board of Aldermen and local residents decided last year that they want Starkville to be more than a drive-by community.
“Sidewalks to nowhere represents a very negative view of the city’s future,” Ward said, adding what he called a more positive idea that “they don’t connect just yet.”
Jamie Mixon, a member of the Starkville Central Neighborhood Foundation, said that allowing a variance to the sidewalk ordinance would open a proverbial “Pandora’s Box.”
“Don’t allow anyone to bully you or steer you away from the vision of a better Starkville,” Mixon said.
Calling the location of the Senior Enrichment Center alone the result of shortsightedness, Randal McMillen said, “Mr. Johnson should be focusing on making the Senior Enrichment Center more accessible than threatening to move out of the city.”
Former vice mayor Mary Lee Beal entreated the board to listen to the voice of experience.
“Once you grant a variance you’ve opened the door, and it’s really hard to close that door,” Beal said.
Peter Bain said said that a city forces car traffic on roads when it has no pedestrian connectivity.
Mark Duncan pointed out the fact that the GTPDD had over $9 million in its budget and, therefore, shouldn’t find it “burdensome” to install $25,000 worth of sidewalks for a center that should be accessible to its citizens.
In his defense, Johnson said, “The reason I have so much money is that I don’t spend it on things that I think are frivolous.”
Mayor Parker Wiseman, responding to Johnson’s arguments,said that the city has been working toward a more walkable community for nearly a decade, during which a survey of Starkville’s needs was conducted and a comprehensive plan incorporated the use of sidewalks as a vital part of the way the city functions.
Citing the state’s 1987 plan to make every town 30 miles or 30 minutes away from a highway, Wiseman said he remembers thinking that the plan did not make sense as he drove down two-lane highways and would see what looked like a four-lane highway to nowhere.
“We are certainly at a point to where you don’t see the long-term vision we have,” Wiseman told Johnson, explaining that his administration was planting the seeds of a more walkable place and asking Johnson not to let his disagreement lead to removal of plans for a senior center.

Revision of the ordinance

After reports about recent decisions by the Transportation Committee from Gafford, Stich and Al Turner, who was injured by a running vehicle on a street with no sidewalks, Ward 1 Alderman Ben Carver asked them if they could exclude the industrial park from the sidewalk ordinance.
“We don’t have any way to do that for you,” Stich said.
Both Stich and Gafford agreed that while the industrial park, only half a mile from Highway 12 is not zoned as industrial property — only commercial — it connects Starkville’s wards, and the only exemptions in the many ordinances they have researched are for agricultural districts.
They could, however, said include language in the ordinance that would allow a variance if typographical or other issues would make sidewalks too costly, Stich said, using a cost-per-linear-foot formula.
“But being an appealing body is not what we’re appointed to do,” Stich added.
City Attorney Chris Latimer said that, as of now, the board could not legally grant a variance for the industrial park, because the ordinance states “all construction.”
But some of the aldermen who praised Johnson’s development already started brainstorming ways to grant a variance for Johnson.
“The city grants variances all the time,” said Ward 6 Alderman Roy A. Perkins.
Ward 2 Alderwoman and Vice Mayor Sandra Sistrunk said that recent discussions between both sides have created an atmosphere so emotional that neither one can listen to the other.
“We need to find some common ground,” Sistrunk said.

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