It was government vs. liberty Thursday night when local residents addressed city Transportation Committee members about sidewalk regulations.
What started out as a public forum on the City of Starkville’s ordinance requiring sidewalks with new development quickly turned into a yelling match at times as those attending clashed over what areas of the city need sidewalks and what areas do not.
Some argued that all areas of the city need
sidewalks, while others pleaded for less restrictions.
Rudy Johnson, the executive director of the Golden Triangle Planning and Development District whose plans include building a senior enrichment center, bemoaned the $25,000 cost of building a 300-foot sidewalk.
“People are tired of government intrusion in their lives,” Johnson said.
In recent months, Johnson has requested exemption from the ordinance for his developmen and threatened to move the GTPDD out of the city if not approved.
Since then, the Board of Aldermen has requested that the Transportation Committee draft language allowing for variances in the ordinance, and the committee has proposed allowing a variance process for building plans in an area where typographical conditions would create an “undue hardship” for the developer.
Single-family property owners and agricultural areas are automatically exempted from sidewalk requirements.
Before the ordinance was adopted almost a year ago, only 5 percent of Starkville streets had sidewalks, Transportation Committee member Chris Gottbrath said before presenting the ordinance to the group.
As a result, sidewalks have been installed in front of five new developments and will soon be constructed in front of more than 10 more.
The City of Starkville is also living up to its own standards by adding sidewalks to Louisville Street when it is widened and to Pat Station Road, Reed Road, Hospital Road and Gillespie Street, along with curb cuts.
Clayton Richardson asked the committee on Tuesday to rescind the ordinance, which members say they worked on for a year, and entirely new one.
The power to rescind the ordinance, however, lies solely with the Starkville Board of Aldermen.
“The (current) ordinance is a solution to a problem we didn’t have to begin with,” Richardson said, arguing that some developers and business owners have taken their plans out of the city due to its restrictions.
But Mark Duncan stood up later and argued that such businesses may not be what members of the community should want for the city.
“I agree,” said Jeremy Murdock, who serves on the city’s Planning and Zoning Commission.
Duncan’s comment stirred a heated standing debate between himself, Richardson and Johnson.
Ward 1 Alderman Ben Carver, who supported the sidewalk ordinance when it passed, said that he did not favor requiring a developer to pay for and install disconnected sidewalks.
“Don’t do a blanket approach,” said Carver, arguing for a “prioritized list” of streets that need sidewalks.
Sturgis resident Robert J. Allen, who helped organize the Starkville TEA Party, said that the current ordinance is too vague and its “unclear” definition of development could entangle the city in expensive legal battles.
Dr. Jim Gafford, Transportation Committee chair, asked Allen to send him an e-mail of his written comments.
Another TEA Party activist from Sturgis, Barbara James, worried that the ordinance would increase the tax burden on local residents and that the GTPDD’s required sidewalk would lead to nowhere.
“I think all this in the long run is going to add some kind of taxes on everybody,” she said.
But Allen and James weren’t speaking for the entire Starkville TEA Party.
Scott Maynard, who said he was both a TEA Party supporter and a bicyclist, contended that a town’s “quality of life” amenities attract businesses and developments more than they deter them, especially in towns dense with research industries.
Because Starkville is 20 years behind the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act, the federal government could file a lawsuit against the city its officials cannot prove efforts toward a more accessible community, said Whitney Hilton, president of the Starkville Commission on Disability.
Bound to a wheelchair, Hilton explained that sometimes sidewalks help her get to a building without available handicapped parking spaces.
“It can make or break somebody’s independence,” Hilton said.
Transportation Committee member Alvin Turner, who is permanently crippled on one leg, has no car and walks where he needs to go with a cane and a reflector vest at night.
“I walk from Piggly Wiggly all the way to town on broken sidewalks,” he told Johnson after his speech.
“I’m carrying this leg that’s messed up... Think about our safety.”
After the meeting, Murdock, who due to time limits did not get a chance to speak during the forum, argued that developers have not seen a significant increase in undue hardships as a result of the sidewalk ordinance as the city already requires parking lots, building codes, a sprinkler system and fire codes for the “good” of the development.
“Parking lots are much more expensive than sidewalks,” Murdock said.
Gafford, who established a regular schedule of transportation meetings for every second Thursday at 5:30 p.m. at a location to be announced, said that after hearing comments at the forum, he did not see a clear consensus on what is the best way to revise the ordinance.
“That’s compromised by a difficult economic situation,” Gafford said.
Riding in the passenger’s seat of a car on the way home after a difficult time of fastening his seat belt and adjusting his cain, Turner looked outside the window pointing at intersections he called dangerous for pedestrians.
“We’re not going to change everybody’s minds,” Turner said. “People understand what they want to understand.”