Sidewalk law exemption issue debated

Starkville city officials have again held off approving exceptions from rules requiring sidewalks with new development.
The Starkville Board of Aldermen has yet to settle a debate between those who support an objective standard for granting variances to required sidewalk construction and those who would like the industrial park exempted from current rules.
The city’s Transportation Committee began drafting an ordinance mandating sidewalks with new development over a year and a half ago, committee chair Jim Gafford said during Tuesday’s Board of Aldermen meeting.
“We’re getting very little feedback from the community,” he said after repeated tries at the board’s request to include unbiased language allowing variances in the ordinance.
More than a month ago, the board asked the Ttransportation Committee to determine how variances can be allowed in the sidewalk ordinance after the Golden Triangle Planning and Development District’s executive director, Rudy Johnson, requested exemption from the ordinance for his plans to build a senior enrichment center in what is called an “industrial area.”
Johnson said during previous meetings that he would relocate GTPPD from Starkville if not granted this request. Since then, the Transportation Committee has been bombarded with appeals to leave the industrial park out of the ordinance, while also hearing from residents who favor sidewalk connectivity throughout the city.
Gafford addressed what he called a “reactionary and adversarial spirit” among recent discussions on granting sidewalk variances.
The committee wrote the ordinance and its recently added language on variances based on what has worked in other comparable towns, he said.
The drafted additions to the ordinance allow for a variance to a developer or landowner who would suffer an “undue hardship” as a result of topographical impediments generating a burdensome expense, Gafford said.
Determined by a per-linear foot basis, standard cost metrics would be set by reviewing average construction costs published quarterly by the Mississippi Department of Transportation.
Chris Gottbrath, who serves on the committee, said that with the newly drafted language allowing variance, the sidewalk ordinance still holds its strength.
But a cost threshold could lead to developers falsifying cost estimates to ditch the responsibilities of building sidewalks, warned local resident Thomas Stewart.
Alvin Turner, once injured as a pedestrian by an automobile, also serves on the Transportation Committee.
“It took us a whole year to pass this ordinance, and the painful part about it is we can’t even get it off the ground,” he said. “It’s very heartbreaking.”
Whitney Hilton, who chairs the local Commission on Disability, said that Starkville remains 20 years behind mandates of the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act to increase public accessibility for the handicapped.
“We fear that granting a variance that is too lenient or arbitrary in nature could weaken the ordinance,” Hilton said.
Transportation Committee member Bethany Stich, who could not attend Tuesday’s meeting, wrote a letter to the aldermen, which stated: “There is no way to ‘except’ the industrial park unless we except the entire manufacturing zone in that area.
“This includes areas along Highway 12 where we know sidewalks are badly needed, and if portions of the manufacturing zone were to be rezoned as an industrial park, a variance for that area could be provided. At present, no such zone exists,” Stich wrote
Stich also addressed the argument that the industrial park needs no sidewalks.
“We have direct factual data that supports the need for sidewalks in the area,” she said, referring to a study conducted by the Carl Small Town Center housed at Mississippi State University. “I ask that you require the same from those assuming it is not necessary.”
Finally, she added, if the senior enrichment center does not have sidewalks installed, to whom will the center be accessible?
“Who does it serve today?” Dr. Stich said in her letter.
“Who could further be served by sidewalks and transit service to the area? I do not believe the services provided by the PDD are inclusive to our entire community. I think we can do better. With the upcoming opportunities for a new municipal complex, could we not seize the opportunity for the city to take care of its own senior citizens and not be beholden to the PDD? Could we not include in the complex a center that serves all of Starkvillians in their golden years in an equal and accessible fashion?”
Passing “an olive branch” to the Transportation Committee, Ward 5 Alderman Jeremiah Dumas suggested that the board hold off on a decision to approve or reject the committee’s proposed changes until the panel can make some of the ordinance’s newly drafted language less confusing.
Dumas also addressed the “spirit” referenced by Gafford and encouraged those who have a problem with the committee’s work after they have volunteered their time to make changes at the board’s request to be a part of the process.
“If you’re really into what this means, go to the Transportation Committee and find out what they’re discussing,” Dumas suggested as an alternative to criticizing the committee’s efforts behind closed doors. “We want this ordinance to be blessed by the Transportation Committee.”
Jim McKell, who began efforts to house the current Senior Enrichment Center at the GTPDD, brought a two-fold comment to the board: “It’s difficult to attend a committee meeting if you don’t know when it is. And sidewalks are important because they denote a safe place to walk. There are areas of the city that will be unsafe regardless of whether they have sidewalks.”
Ward 1 Alderman Ben Carver said he would try to recruit other people to the seven-member committee made up of residents in both the public and private sector.
“We need to get this done,” Carver said, suggesting a quick process.
Gafford said an agreeable ordinance would take several months to complete.
City Attorney Chris Latimer said any new language added will again require publishing a new draft in a local newspaper along with another set of pubic hearings.