Monica Cho just wants to walk her children safely to their neighborhood school or to the nearby bus stop so that she can take them shopping or to get ice cream cones. But when she and her children, ages, 7, 12 and 15, try to navigate the main street in her Potomac neighborhood, Cho worries that she is putting her family at risk of injury.
The road, Falls Chapel Way, "turns into a highway" as dozens of drivers zoom down the residential street, sometimes as they take their children to nearby Cold Spring Elementary School, she said. There are no sidewalks.
"Within two days [after moving to her house two years ago], I figured out that it wasn't going to work for me and my children," said Cho, who is legally blind.
Since then, the Chos, with the support of dozens of neighbors, have pursued construction of a sidewalk along Falls Chapel Way to increase pedestrian safety, but the request was denied.
Last month, Monica Cho filed a lawsuit against Montgomery County and County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D) alleging that they violated the Americans with Disabilities Act when they rejected the sidewalk. "We may be the first people in the neighborhood for whom it's an issue of necessity," said Cho's husband, Kenneth, citing other residents' previous pleas to get a sidewalk built in the area.
While the county receives between 80 and 100 requests annually for sidewalk construction and has faced opposition when they aren't built, officials are not aware of any lawsuits citing the ADA, county spokeswoman Esther Bowring said.
Bowring said county officials had not seen the lawsuit earlier this week and would not comment on it.
"The county has a really strong commitment to pedestrian safety," Bowring said. "Sidewalks are really an essential part of any pedestrian safety program."
The county builds about eight miles of sidewalks every year and last year spent about $1.3 million on such construction, she said. Most sidewalks in new developments are built by developers.
While the Chos and other residents favored a sidewalk for Falls Chapel Way, some in the neighborhood opposed it, saying it would harm the character of the area, resulting in the loss of mature trees and portions of some front lawns.
After a public hearing last October, Bowring said the county's Department of Public Works and Transportation endorsed construction of the sidewalk. But a hearing examiner recommended against its construction, and Duncan rejected the sidewalk.
"While the department has indicated a willingness to work with the local community to mitigate the impact of the project, the extent to which this sidewalk project will eliminate greenspace, remove existing trees, and potentially damage and unintentionally eliminate other trees will permanently and adversely alter the appearance and character of this local neighborhood," the examiner wrote. "In light of the inconclusive evidence of the pedestrian safety benefits of this project and the adverse consequences to the local community through construction of the sidewalk, the proposed project should not proceed to construction."
Once their request was denied, the Chos said they reluctantly moved to take legal action.
"I think it's a very fair request, it's a reasonable request and the way the system works, if the government is not prepared to do it, that's why we have the courts," said Steven VanGrack, the Chos's attorney, who also is a former Rockville mayor.
Just as the sidewalk would benefit the community around Falls Chapel Way, this case may help a large number of disabled Maryland residents, VanGrack said.
"We couldn't find a case in Maryland where the ADA required a government to build sidewalks," he said. "It has the potential to be significant to all jurisdictions in Maryland."
But the Chos and their attorney say they still want to negotiate a resolution with the county.
"They'll drop the suit in a minute," VanGrack said. "They did not want to go to court. It really was a last resort for them -- these are not litigious people."
Kenneth Cho said he laments that his wife's request for what he calls a "less than a half-mile strip of four-foot concrete" has turned into a legal battle and turned some neighbors against them. "This is not just for us and our kids. I don't want anyone's kid to get hurt," he said.