Conflict brews over sidewalks
Rupert “Rudy” Johnson discusses the Golden Triangle Planning and Development District’s plan for expansion Friday in front of the organization’s existing building on Miley Road in Starkville. Johnson is at odds with Starkville officials over an ordinance which would require the GTPDD to install new sidewalks along a portion of Miley Road and C.C. Clark Road before the city issues an occupancy permit for the new building. / Tim Pratt
August 29, 2010 2:52:00 AM
As Golden Triangle Planning and Development District Executive Director Rupert "Rudy" Johnson walked along the edge of Miley Drive Friday morning, he looked west and eyed Southwire and Clark Distributing Co.
Johnson then looked east, where he saw 1.5 acres of swampy woodland, then Pritchard Engineering and Dancing Feet Academy in the distance.
"How many sidewalks do you see around here?" Johnson asked. "None. How many people do you see walking around here? None. It's an industrial park. Why would anybody want to put a sidewalk in an industrial park?"
He recently asked city officials the same question.
The Golden Triangle Planning and Development District wants to construct a new 14,000-square-foot building just north of the existing GTPDD offices on Miley Drive for local senior citizens. It would serve as a community center with activities and events for the more than 2,000 seniors who use the GTPDD annually, Johnson said.
But according to the city's sidewalk ordinance, passed by the previous Board of Aldermen in May 2009, the GTPDD would be required to construct roughly one-fourth mile of sidewalks along Miley Drive and C.C. Clark Road before the city issues an occupancy permit for the new building. The project already is expected to cost $1.6 million, Johnson said, plus an extra $25,000 for the sidewalks, as required by the city.
Sidewalk to nowhere
"Why should we spend $25,000 for a sidewalk that goes to nowhere?" Johnson said, looking up and down Miley Drive, where no sidewalks were in sight. "It makes absolutely no sense to put a sidewalk in an industrial park."
Johnson's situation isn't unique. The sidewalk ordinance has drawn scorn from developers and property owners since it was passed last year.
According to the ordinance, sidewalks are required in all new single-family residential and commercial subdivision developments. The ordinance also requires sidewalks in all other new non-single-family residential or non-agricultural development projects, or when construction improvements on an existing property equate to 50 percent or more of the appraised taxable value of the property.
Starkville's current Board of Aldermen has enforced the ordinance since they took office in July 2009. The board's unwillingness to grant variances caused at least one developer to pull a proposed project out of the city, while several others have complained regularly to city officials, saying the ordinance creates a patchwork of walkways around town. In some areas, such as newly constructed Fire Station 5 at Reed Road and Highway 25, a sidewalk is built in front of the structure, but the concrete ends at the neighboring property line, where there are no more walkways.
"There has to be some kind of variance or exemption," Johnson said. "You can't take this 'one-size-fits-all' approach."
The GTPDD is considering moving out of Starkville, primarily due to the sidewalk issue, Johnson said. The relocation would take more than 200 jobs out of the city, plus the jobs potentially created by construction of the new building.
Johnson hasn't yet set a timeline for a possible move.
"I'm looking for land (in other counties), but for right now we're just going to sit back and wait," Johnson said.
Johnson is waiting to see whether or not the Board of Aldermen amends the sidewalk ordinance to allow variances or exemptions. The board voted recently to send the sidewalk ordinance back to the transportation committee for possible revisions.
One option would be to establish a procedure for property owners or builders who want a variance, said Ward 3 Alderman Eric Parker. The variance request could go before the city's transportation committee, formerly known as the sidewalk committee, and the transportation committee could then make a recommendation to the Board of Aldermen on whether or not to grant a variance.
Case by case
If aldermen do agree to amend the ordinance to allow variances, the city first would hold two public hearings on the matter, Parker said. The first-term alderman said he is in favor of a process which would allow the city to grant variances.
"I think we need to look at these situations on a case-by-case basis," Parker said. "I don't think we should look at every single instance or development, but I think there are cases where a variance makes sense. So, I'm in support of variances for sure."
Chief Administrative Officer Lynn Spruill shared a similar sentiment.
"Some sort of variance probably is appropriate," Spruill said. "But you shouldn't get a variance just because you don't want to build a sidewalk."
Dr. Bethany Stich, a member of the transportation committee, isn't swayed by Johnson's opposition to sidewalks adjacent to the GTPDD property. She said a significant number of industrial park employees don't have access to automobiles and would benefit if more sidewalks are built.
"First off, our industrial park is not a traditional industrial park," Stich said. "It's got the soccer field and a gymnastics studio, so it's not a traditional industrial park. Second, those are employment centers. We have a high percentage of low-income residents in this town that don't have access to automobiles. If we want to get these people to work and their jobs are in the industrial park, we need to provide safe infrastructure for them to do get there."
Stich also said a new sidewalk along C.C. Clark Road would connect the existing GTPDD building with the organization's proposed new building and the former Dux D'Lux structure, which was purchased recently by the GTPDD. The GTPDD plans to renovate and improve the former Dux D'Lux building if it can build the new senior center.
"When the new (GTPDD) building is finished, sidewalks will do nothing but make walking between buildings more conducive for their own clientele -- not just for the city of Starkville," Stich said. "You can't have it both ways. It can't be 'Because it's an industrial park, we don't need sidewalks,' then put the senior enrichment center there. It would be unsafe for the seniors to walk around."
Stich also doesn't like Johnson's threat of moving the GTPDD out of Starkville, saying it would set a "dangerous precedent" if the Board of Aldermen gave in to Johnson's demands.
"There shouldn't be an exception just because he threatens to move (the GTPDD) out of the city," Stich said. "That's borderline unethical, if nothing else."
Parker said he hopes the city can establish a procedure for granting variances within the next three months.