Sidewalks in the city of Hagerstown have crept back into city council discussions.
The five-member council spent 30 minutes Tuesday debating its curb and sidewalk policy — last updated in June 2010, according to city documents — only to defer the matter to a future work session.
How to fairly enforce sidewalk and curb repair and installation is a question that has plagued Hagerstown for years.
City Engineer Rodney Tissue said the city code is clear on where the responsibility falls.
"Sidewalks and curbs along the public streets and thoroughfares within the corporate limits of the City shall be constructed and kept in a reasonable state of repair by the abutting property owner," according to section 216 of the code.
However, the policy for enforcing the code is what kept the council circling Tuesday.
Councilman Lewis C. Metzner suggested the city revert to a previous policy.
"My suggestion, my humble suggestion, is that we go back to the policy that was in existence for the last number of administrations," Metzner said. "That essentially is: If you don't have a sidewalk, we are not going to make you put one in. Curbs would be a different story."
Metzner said he looked at every possible arrangement and rationale for identifying which properties should add sidewalks.
"But it's like squeezing a balloon," he said. "Somebody will find another reason why that is not acceptable."
Raising eyebrows among the council, Councilman Martin E. Brubaker said a case could be made for the city to shoulder the responsibility of repairing or replacing a set number of sidewalks annually.
"Are you suggesting the city do that?" Councilman William M. Breichner asked him.
"I'm throwing it out there, I'm not making a formal proposal, I'm trying to get a discussion going here," Brubaker replied. "Sidewalks serve the general welfare more than the particular property they happen to be located on."
He said the city could have a system of priority areas, similar to how it paves streets, that it implements over a long period and for which it could use bond financing to reduce the burden on the general fund.
"It might be something we can afford," he said.
Tissue said previously that sidewalk replacement can cost a property owner as much as $3,000.
There are far more properties in the city that have sidewalks than those that do not, Tissue said.
Looking into why properties do not have sidewalks, the city's curb and sidewalk task force determined that sidewalks did not make sense in certain areas, he said.
The task force suggested that in those areas only, the city should not enforce the requirement to install sidewalks, he said.
Councilman Forrest W. Easton asked Tissue if the policy of requiring the installation of new sidewalks was new.
"No," Tissue said. "When this policy was written (in 2003) it had in there when we should send notices for new sidewalk installations. It wasn't enforced for a few years. About two years ago when the task force was done, that is when we started enforcing it."
As written, the city's existing policy requires some people without sidewalks to install the walkways, while others without sidewalks, are exempt, Metzner said.
Metzner questioned how the city could tell homeowners who have lived in their house for decades that they now have to put in sidewalks while their neighbors across the street do not; or how it could tell those who bought homes for which a developer was not required to put in sidewalks that now they are required to shoulder the burden.
"Candidly, to me, the only logical policy — and we've tried it, and I think it was a total failure, and I, for one, as a politician, have no desire to enact it — and that is to make everybody have a sidewalk. And that goes over like a lead balloon."
Councilwoman Ashley C. Haywood said for her the answer is simple.
"Because every single one of your neighbors has to do it, and that is how you can walk down the street safely," she said. "If one citizen has to take on the burden of the welfare of the entire community, every citizen does."
The problem is not the policy, it is the lack of enforcement, she said.
"It's a sound policy, it's a good policy, it just hasn't been enforced," she said. "It's because it hasn't been enforced that we are at the table today."
Allowing a few upset property owners to deter the council from making a decision that benefits the overall community is a judgment she does not understand, she said.
Tissue said the most recent notices to install sidewalks went out in the past two or three years.
Fewer than six were issued, he said. Of those, some residents have taken steps to install the sidewalks, while others have not, he said.
Mayor Robert E. Bruchey II said the council would discuss the policy again in June.