Suburbia's Sidewalk Squabbles

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By Steve Hendrix
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Not in my front yard.

That's the fresh twist on an old cry often heard by Montgomery County officials as they work to squeeze sidewalks onto suburban streets.

Spurred by a growing emphasis on pedestrian safety and neighborhood walkability, Montgomery spends more than $1 million a year to retrofit sidewalks onto the looping streets of post-World War II subdivisions. The projects are popular -- there is a backlog of about 150 applications from residents hoping to get their neighborhoods on the list. But they are also reliably divisive, often pitting newer residents with children against empty nesters and side-street residents who stand to lose a chunk of lawn.

"I moved here because it didn't have sidewalks; I like the suburban atmosphere," said August Spector, 65, a 25-year resident of Potomac's Fox Hills West, where the county last week approved a 3,200-foot length of sidewalk that will shave several yards from several yards, including Spector's. "People who moved into this neighborhood knew full well what they were getting."

County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) emphasized new sidewalks as part of the pedestrian safety initiative he announced in December, calling for a survey of sidewalk conditions in close-in neighborhoods and additional money for new construction. That almost guarantees future fights such as those in recent years on Bethesda's Maryknoll Avenue and Kensington's Carriage Road Drive.

"A lot of homeowners take it personally," said Richard Earp, manager of Montgomery's sidewalk program. "While they may know that the county has the right of way for a sidewalk, they've mowed that grass for 20 or 30 years, and now all these people are going to be walking on what they have thought of as their yard."

In the North Potomac community of Quince Orchard Knolls, opponents of a recently proposed sidewalk have raised a host of objections: fears of liability, the loss of trees and the irony that homeowners will be required, by law, to shovel snow from sidewalks they didn't want. The first neighborhood meeting on the issue grew so contentious that the citizens association brought in professional mediators for the next one, held last month.

"This neighborhood was never laid out for sidewalks," said Joe McHugh, a 22-year resident of the neighborhood. "I have questions about the whole process."

The fights are largely a legacy of a building boom after World War II during which suburban street builders scrapped the city grid pattern in favor of winding lanes and cul-de-sacs. The idea of lining that complex filigree with sidewalks barely came up, said Dick Tustian, Montgomery's planning director from 1969 to 1990.

"It was a whole ethos of the time, part of our love affair with the automobile," Tustian said. "Sidewalks weren't considered necessary. Now there is new paradigm gaining acceptance to return the street to a pedestrian place. It's really taken hold in the last five years."

Legally, Earp said, the county doesn't need neighborhood permission to install a sidewalk within the 17 feet of right of way it owns along most primary residential streets. But, in addition to traffic and safety studies, officials take local opinion into account, he said. After a brutal dust-up in Bethesda, the county now holds a public hearing on any contested sidewalk proposal.

In Fox Hills West, the sidewalk approval process had erupted into a full-blown neighborhood battle by the time Leggett approved the $94,000 project last month. The clash has featured dueling legal opinions, accusations of rigged surveys, a confiscated newsletter and allegations of election irregularities within the local citizens group.

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