Pedestrians First

I believe the ordinance that allows  this policy is short-sighted, financially onerous, and just plain wrong. I can readily make the case that we simply cannot afford to comply with the Borough’s demands, but that in and of itself does not directly speak to the lunacy of this policy.

Let me be perfectly clear: This issue is not about my family’s inability to pay for these repairs. It is about:

Liability

State law ALLOWS the borough to shift this burden directly upon property owners, it doesn’t require it. Our borough is simply taking advantage of a statute that permits it to shift financial obligation and liability to those who own the property adjacent to this public right-of-way. If someone trips and hurts themselves on the sidewalk in front of your house, you are responsible for that person’s medical care, unless the borough determines that the sidewalk does not meet its standards. If a car sustains damage from a pothole in the road, the government pays to fix it.

Fiscal Responsibilities

In 2008, the borough borrowed $2.4 million to fund an eminent domain seizure of private property and an operating business to build a new parking lot for the retail district. One could debate the fairness of of any use of eminent domain, but parking lots are a problematic solution in an attempt to attract more people to the district. At best, any parking lot constructed in place of actual buildings represents a band-aid approach to urban revival. The more parking you have, the less you tend to need. Communities such as New Hope, Manayunk and Chestnut Hill are notoriously difficult places to find parking, and yet they continue to thrive.

In effect, the borough removed a prime piece of private real estate from the possibility of redevelopment into something that not only adds charm to the district but value as well.

That $2.4 million would likely rebuild most of the sidewalks and curbs in this borough, so we might ask, what would bring greater value to Jenkintown as a whole: Beautified streetscapes or an unsightly expanse of asphalt?

Better Streetscapes

This particular ordinance has resulted in a haphazard patchwork of sidewalk styles, conditions, and qualities. In communities in other states where the municipalities assume responsibility for the entire public right-of-way, when they do replace crumbling sidewalks, they tend to do it a block at a time, resulting in a unified, consistent look that lasts longer and is much more pleasant to walk upon and — for our children — ride upon. It also costs less to do.

Our Environment

The fact that Pennsylvania allows this policy establishes an attitude that prioritizes automobiles over pedestrians. Government funds are readily available to fix roads and bridges, but do not exist to serve walkways? In an age where we are increasingly concerned with issues such a climate change and obesity, is this the signal we want to send?

The policy also all-but-insures that new housing developments will not be walkable. Developers know that people aware of this law will be more likely to opt out of having a sidewalk, and indeed, you are hard pressed to find any housing development built after World War II with a full network of sidewalks.

Property Values

Needless to say, faced with this liability, a prospective buyer of a house discovering that sidewalk maintenance falls completely on them will factor that cost into any offer they make. Before you sell your house, the Borough may require you to make those repairs before you can close the deal. These transactions are already riddled with enough “gotchas”. This particular one is unnecessary.

Fairness

I do not own that right of way. It is a public good. The idea that the borough requires me to pay out-of-pocket for the full cost of repairs for property that I don’t own and in comparison to the rest of the community use the least, just doesn’t seem right. I’m perfectly happy to clear the walk of snow and keep it clean, but this is a completely arbitrary law. Why does my responsibility extend to the asphalt?

More than that, why should we be penalized for living sensibly?

Time to change

As I said, the commonwealth does not require Jenkintown to shirk this responsibility. It only allows it. As citizens, we can change this and send a signal to the entire commonwealth that we want an end to this practice.

I fully expect the borough to claim it can’t afford to repair its own sidewalks, but if it can find $2 million to build a parking lot of questionable value, it surely can — and should — find the funds to make our walkable community safer, more beautiful, and healthier.

If you believe as I do that it’s long overdue for Pennsylvania to recognize the primacy of the pedestrian and for Jenkintown to lead the way, I ask you to do as I have already done and write to your borough councilor and to your representatives in Harrisburg.

Our Representatives in Harrisburg:

Steve McCarter
115 E. Glenside Avenue, Suite 8
Glenside, PA 19038
P*: (215) 572-5210
F*: (215) 517-1423
Hours of Operation – M-F 9:00 – 5:00
Chief of staff: Steve Morris
Contact

Senator Arthur Haywood III
1168 Easton Road
Abington, PA 19001
Phone: 215-517-1434
Fax: 215-517-1439
Contact

  • Da Rules

    Can you point me to where you read that “State law ALLOWS the borough to shift this burden directly upon property owners, it doesn’t require it.”
    Pennsylvania has since the 19th century (1891) authorized, by statute, municipalities to require the owner of real estate abutting a sidewalk to keep the sidewalk in good condition and the burden is on the property owner . This can be found in the Act of May 16, 1891, P.L. 75, Sec. 11, 53 P.S. SS 1891.
    I know you may think that by saying this statue is old and should be changed for one reason or another is a good argument but the fact is the statue stands. No one is growing food from their sidewalk so an argument that this is outdated because people used their land for income falls short. This statute addresses sidewalks and holds as much weight today as it did in 1891.

    • You’ll have to point me online to exact wording of the legal code, but just a quick Google search uncovered this:

      http://www.societyhillcivic.org/news/upload/cityresponsetoshcalegalquestions.pdf

      I assume that this letter from the City of Philadelphia Law Department is quoting the statute verbatim when it says that “municipalities MAY require sidewalks and curbstone to be laid, set, and kept in repair…” It doesn’t say MUST. The law, as I read it, authorizes municipalities to do this, but does not require it.

      • Da Rules

        I see where you are coming from and your desire to read the statue in the most favorable light to your side of the argument. Case law that I mentioned in an earlier post shows how it is enforced and that the home owners were responsible. My question was simply where did you read what you posted? I quoted chapter and verse and now you want me to supply you with the book.

        • Not so. I was hoping that the statute was published online somewhere so that I could verify the exact wording. You seemed to know what you’re talking about, and I hoped you could provide a link.

          If I’m wrong about the wording of the statute, by all means, please correct me. However, when I’ve brought this up in Council meetings, no one, including the borough solicitor, disputed my interpretation.

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