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:
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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:
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
Senator Arthur Haywood III
1168 Easton Road
Abington, PA 19001