Suburbanites face tough, long-term problems such as crime, congestion and aging schools, but Howard County residents can be thankful today for one less controversy -- new sidewalks.
No more bitter battles between those who want safe places to walk in older developments built without sidewalks, and those who see them as another expensive government intrusion.
After meeting at 7 a.m. every Tuesday since September, a small group of Howard residents has laid out a compromise policy on sidewalks that should take officials like County Executive James N. Robey off the hook for decisions that can leave lingering bad feelings.
"I don't think it suited anyone particularly well, but they came to an agreement that is a good compromise," said Andrew Daneker, county highways chief and chairman of the seven-member group.
The policy, accepted by Robey last week, requires applicants for sidewalks to jump two major hurdles. They must satisfy at least four of nine criteria and get two-thirds of neighbors whose yards would abut the sidewalks to request them.
The criteria are:
Evidence of regular use (such as a footpath).
A location within a half-mile of a pedestrian destination such as a park or library.
On a regular school walking route.
In an area with small lots.
If drivers regularly exceed the speed limit by more than 10 mph in the area.
In an area in which motorists' views are partially obscured, making walking dangerous.
On a roadway with less than a 4-foot shoulder.
A place where a sidewalk would connect to an existing walkway.
A sidewalk that would provide a financial return for the construction costs -- perhaps saving the use of school buses by making a walking route safer.
Even after satisfying the two major conditions, however, the county will take on the projects according to its priorities, starting with school walking routes and safety.
Robey said he accepts the policy and is pleased to have one. Last spring, he held up approval for any sidewalk construction in his first capital budget because of the disputes.
Without a policy, each request for sidewalks boiled down to a neighbor vs. neighbor fight to persuade elected officials to provide the money or deny it -- a decision that would inevitably create hard feelings. These disputes erupted in areas built before the mid-1970s, when the county began requiring sidewalks in all new developments.
"I think we have a good policy. Two extremes reached a reasonable compromise," Robey said.
"We did some giving and some taking," said Carole Wilkes, a mother of three school-age children who has fought for nearly three years to get sidewalks installed in Font Hill, an older Ellicott City development off U.S. 40, near Centennial Elementary school.
Although she still hopes her 4-year-old may someday have sidewalks to get to school, Wilkes knows they may never be built in her neighborhood. But she, like others, praises the committee Robey created and Daneker's leadership.
"It gave us some time to be neighbors," Wilkes said about serving with Kevin Shepherd, a lawyer and Font Hill resident who doesn't see sidewalks her way. "I have no ill will. I only think that the policy strengthened the relationship [between neighbors]."
Shepherd, too, is satisfied.
"I approach it from a perspective of fiscal responsibility," he said, agreeing that the new policy is "a balanced and thoughtful approach to a highly nuanced issue."
By creating standard criteria for building sidewalks, Shepherd said, the Sidewalk Extension Task Force has imposed an orderly, consistent policy where there was none.
"It will reduce the rhetoric and the heat," Shepherd said. "You want to see a process -- not who cries the loudest."