Stuck on the rail of public vs. private
June 9, 2008 · Updated 3:53 PM
"As imbroglios go, it leaves us straddling the rail.A fence sits too close to the road, in the way of proposed bike lanes. The property owner wants to see the fence stay put; city officials are split on the issue. That the fence was built in the public right of way does not seem to be in dispute. The owner supports the construction of bike lanes, but wants the improvements to accommodate the fence, which went up with the blessing of a permit eight years ago; planners say the owner was warned during permitting that the fence might have to be moved in the future, but they can't find such documents in the record.So the city will let the fence stand where it is, turn the ditch into a culvert and put the bike lane on top of that - splitting the extra construction costs with the property owner.It's an interesting precedent, as the island moves toward more formalized goals for pedestrian and bicycle safety. Later this month, the final draft of the island's new Non-motorized Transportation Plan will be unveiled, with its various calls for wider shoulders, bike lanes, trails and sidewalks.Even this week, we saw a bit of the future at a public meeting discussing Ericksen Avenue improvements that are likely to be controversial once a formal proposal is on the table.What we are discovering is, it's all well and good to say we want bike lanes here, and sidewalks there - but what's on the ground will, as often as not, bring us back to reality. We fear a future of localized disputes, as the myriad encroachments of the past - trees, shrubs, fences, driveways, yards - along each route are revealed. On Ericksen Avenue, if Winslow Master Plan standards were strictly applied, new sidewalks would run through two buildings that sit next to the roadway.We see several dynamics at work. The first would be rural ambience versus suburban safety standards. Last month, a policy document that would have guided improvements on New Brooklyn Road was blunted by the city council, after objections from several council members and citizens. At issue: whether that road should have sidewalks from Madison Avenue to Sportsman Club Road. To some, such improvements are a sign of creeping urbanism and sprawl - never mind that the road provides key access to two schools, and someday, a new police and court building. In another sense, it's a case of residents in one neighborhood imposing their will on those of another. This week, pedestrian advocates continued to press their case for sidewalks up and down Ericksen Avenue - while residents there cast a wary eye on a plan that would make the street resemble the Ferncliff Avenue thruway.We don't see a single direction, an easy resolution.We should all count on planners to use the Winslow Master Plan and other standards as guiding documents - conceptual plans, to be refined and tailored for specific projects and taking into account the obstacles in the way. That's pragmatism.But the idealist in us says that to get anywhere - anywhere at all - those individuals along the route must be willing to give something up in return. As a community, these goals are our own, even if they have put us squarely on the fence. "