George Locke Sidewalk Presentation

George Locke’s Sidewalk Shuffle

Jenkintown Borough Manager George Locke updated Council this week on the borough’s ongoing paving program and its accompanying sidewalk inspection and rehabilitation efforts. The eleven-page Powerpoint presentation gave council members a somewhat stilted view of what Mr. Locke has so far accomplished, perhaps hoping that council members don’t walk around town much.

The presentation contradicted a few of our experiences and observations.

Ownership: Mr. Locke correctly pointed to the state law that defines the duties of property owners to maintain their sidewalks and curbs, but responsibility does not equal ownership. We have previously shown that our sidewalk and curb are as much a part of the public domain as the roadway that abuts it.

Lien Process: Once again, Mr. Locke outlined the borough policy of using the lien process to pay for sidewalk work should the owner fail to comply. At our hearing before Judge Elizabeth McHugh, he told her that council had decided not to do that. Which is it? In Mr. Locke’s presentation, he emphasized the word “may”, which makes this statement meaningless and arbitrary. Who gets the lien and who doesn’t? Where is the accounting for hardship?

Penalties: Mr. Locke’s presentation stated that non-compliant owners could be fined $100 to $600. At our hearing, Judge McHugh, told us we could be fined $185 per day. Which is it?

Walkability: We can’t say for sure what Mr. Locke’s definition of “walkability” is, and the word seemed to fumble off his lips when he said it, but to us it means a consistent, well-engineered, and unified pedestrian environment. We don’t have that.

Safety: Mr. Locke pointed to the increased safety brought about by this program thus far. Does this look safe to you?

Sidewalk and curb along Cedar Street.
Sidewalk and curb along Cedar Street.

Curb reveal: Mr. Locke pointed to his efforts to insure that the new pavement would abut curbs that are at least two inches high. His report states: “Engineering best practices state that new paving is best applied against solid curbs, road integrity would be ensured and that cracked sidewalk and curbs create a tripping hazard & liability.”

Florence Street curb reveal
Curb reveal of exactly zero inches along Florence. This condition is also found on Runnymede at the bend.

Here are just a few other examples where he failed on that account.

This report came on the heels of a previous council discussion about establishing a program to loan money to property owners unable to pay for sidewalk repairs. While we laud any effort to make this onerous policy more affordable, bear in mind that not only will homeowners then pay double to triple what the borough would pay as part of a wholesale program, now they will pay interest on that exorbitant burden as well.

When asked for an example of any community in Pennsylvania that currently offers such loans, I pointed to Lock Haven, but I also point to Ithaca, New York which instead applies an annual fee of $75 to all homeowners to pay for a more unified, wholesale approach.

Once again, we have to ask: Is this policy fair? We already know that’s it’s needlessly expensive. We’re told that one resident with a corner lot just forked over $24,000 to fix their curbs and sidewalks that belong to the community. How does that make sense?

Forcing homeowners to bear the full cost of a public resource is onerous, unnecessarily expensive, unfair, and produces poor outcomes. Why can’t we do better?

Do you trust George Locke to enforce a deed restriction?

For those of you who think that the proposed deed restriction imposed upon Summit House eliminates the possibility of children in the project, please read this article from the Yale Law Review. It’s lengthy, but here is a salient part:
“In contrast to this broadly public enforcement system for zoning, the enforcement regime for municipally imposed covenants is often tightly limited. Municipalities routinely write covenants that forbid citizen enforcement, and the courts routinely enforce those limits. In one New York case, for example, the owner of an affordable housing complex attempted to convert its property to market-rate apartments.85 The residents sued, alleging that the conversion violated a covenant between the owner and New York City requiring the building to remain affordable for forty years.86 Under New York law, the tenants would have had standing to enforce the covenant if it were intended for their benefit.87 Although it might seem that a covenant requiring the property to remain affordable would be intended for the benefit of the very tenants receiving affordable units, the court held that this covenant reflected no such intent. A clause of the covenant “explicitly negate[d] any intent to permit its enforcement by third parties such as plaintiffs.”88 Honoring that clause, the court held that the tenants were not beneficiaries of the covenant and therefore lacked standing to sue.89 By the covenant’s clear terms, only the City could enforce the covenant’s restrictions.”

Source: Yale Law Journal – Public Actors, Private Law: Local Governments’ Use of Covenants To Regulate Land Use

Montgomery County Commissioners

How to do open government — A lesson for Jenkintown

Last night’s the “Conversation with the Commissioners” event at the Abington Township Office not only gave us a good dose of information about county activities, it also revealed the stark contrast between Jenkintown’s government with one committed to transparency above and beyond the strict legal guidelines.

First, the concept: Montgomery County is a big place, so having our commissioners set up open forums to meet constituents shows a true commitment to an open process that provides residents with updates and allows them to directly ask questions and make suggestions. Compare that to Jenkintown, a tiny place with twelve representatives who only show up in public at official meetings and the occasional public event to deal with a looming, controversial issue (if even then).

Second, the venue: My first time at the Abington offices starkly contrasts with what we experience in Jenkintown. I understand that Abington is a much larger municipality with a larger budget, but seeing their council room fully equipped with working microphones, cameras for live video, comfortable seating, windows(!), and working ventilation shows a desire by a local government to encourage participation. While I do strongly believe that government must scrutinize every dime that passes through its hands, I also believe that the people should demand government venues as points of pride.

Third, the message: We seem to have quite the proactive county government. Chairperson Val Arkoosh proudly cited a litany of programs and activities and at the same time heralded the county’s restored AAA bond rating. Our taxes went up, but they are still the lowest of all the counties in the region, she claims. Whatever you might think of its policies, it does seem that the county expedites them with a level of professionalism and transparency sorely missing in Jenkintown. In other words, the county doesn’t punch above its weight.

Setting aside the politics of all this activity or even the necessity of county government in general, the presentation displayed a conspicuous degree of competence and professionalism that Jenkintown residents deserve for our community. Perhaps that new borough hall might some day become a reality, but some of that Cedar Street money might have instead gone to a working AV system, functioning air conditioning, and better gallery seating in Council chambers — anything that invites citizen participation and transparency. Then again, that would have to be a cornerstone of our government’s agenda. 

View the archived live stream of the event here.

Big Brother Code Enforcement

Jenkintown makes code enforcement double-plus good.

Big Brother peers in on the Jenkintown Community Facebook page

A few weeks ago, I made the mistake of recommending to a fellow resident seeking a contractor for a furnace replacement that he might do the work himself.

Facing a similar project, I consulted a friend and fellow DIYer, who told me that the job no more requires a contractor than does the replacement of a washing machine. My friend and I plan to convert my system from oil to gas. I look forward to the savings in energy, money, and space.

Full letter from Jenkintown BoroughAbout a week and a half after I posted my intentions on the Jenkintown Community Group page on Facebook, I received an official letter from the borough signed by Kevin Lynch that due to my “posting on social media,” he felt it necessary to remind me of my obligations to the Borough, namely the permits I need to file and pay for.

Yet again, the Borough provides another revealing window on their operation. I never stated an intention to “stick it to the man”, so it makes one wonder that in a town riddled with ongoing, unaddressed code violations, the Borough would take the time to single out someone discussing a furnace upgrade on Facebook. I wish my description of Jenkintown as “small town politics at its smallest” didn’t have such a ring of truth, but rarely does a month pass by when it lives up to that reputation.

Should we add permit fees to the whole “death and taxes” thing? We seem to have come to an understanding as a society that whenever we want to do something to our property, we probably need a permit. Government and apologists for statism will snap back that the permitting process is for our own safety and the good of the community, but is it really?

When I filed a Right to Know request to for copies of all the sidewalk permits, I first asked if the Borough could provide me with the grand total of contractor estimates for the work performed. They said they did not compile that information, and that some of those permits didn’t have that line item. Considering the incredulity of this, I pressed on with my request, only to find that the Borough did indeed distribute no fewer than four versions of the permit, two of which did not ask for the contractor’s estimate, a line item it said it didn’t require in any case. The form didn’t provide such a disclaimer, which meant that a healthy percentage of people did thankfully provide it.

So, if the Borough does not compile any of the information in a database, does not provide a uniform application process, and doesn’t care what you and I spend on our sidewalks, why do they charge for these permits? To offset the cost of having George Locke walk, excuse me, drive out to the worksite, look at the work, and say, “Looks good to me”, all the while he’s on the Borough clock anyway? To whom does this make sense?

Incidentally, they honored my request before they realized they could charge me to redact the names and phone numbers on the permits. All I sought was the total cost, which they could have easily provided had they took the $25 and paid a temp to enter the information into a spreadsheet.

Not to worry, Mr. Ryan. If I do the work, the Borough will get its money. I don’t have an issue with having a third party inspecting the work, but if I’m already paying that third party’s salary, how is that not a cash grab, plain and simple? Money for nothing, indeed, and yet another example how our government nickels and dimes us out of the rewards of our hard work.

ADA requires four feet of space to allow for wheelchair access. This ongoing problem violates that requirement and the Borough is doing nothing to stop it.
ADA requires four feet of space to allow for wheelchair access. This ongoing problem violates that requirement and the Borough is doing nothing to stop it.

Bring Walnut Street parking into compliance before a lawsuit does

Jenkintown’s selective enforcement of its own laws risks expensive litigation.

As most people who live in Jenkintown know, the sidewalk along the 300 and 400 block on the south side of Walnut Street exists primarily as a parking spot for the residents who live along that road. Of course, this is not actually the case. Jenkintown regulations, as they do in most cities and towns, prohibit cars from parking on a sidewalk. Jenkintown, however, chooses to selectively enforce this ordinance — as they have with others — because they simply don’t know what do do without causing a firestorm of protest from those offenders.

What those residents don’t seem to understand and what Jenkintown has chosen to ignore is that the Americans with Disabilities Act requires 100% compliance in all public buildings and spaces. Public sidewalks must be four feet wide, and those along Walnut do meet that requirement. Exceptions might include areas with existing and long-standing obstructions such as telephone poles, but they do not include illegally parked vehicles. The ADA does not consider the inconvenience of the able-bodied.

As someone who has counseled private businesses about the necessity for compliance, I know not only something about the law, but also the risks of ignoring it. In 1999, the City of Worcester, Massachusetts faced a lawsuit for its failure to provide 100% compliance during renovations of its historic train station. The ADA accessible platforms did not extend the full length of the train. The suit halted construction on the $60 million project and delayed its opening by several months.

As a consultant for the restaurant industry, I’ve met with people seeking to restore historic structures and put them back into service. They would often bristle at the notion of expanding doorways to accommodate wheelchairs or to build obtrusive ramps which would harm the historic nature of the structure. My advice was always the same: Do not even think about trying to get a waiver. It only takes one guy in a wheelchair to show up at your permit hearing to stop your project cold and invite litigation.

The power of the ADA is not something to be trifled with, and indeed, the Borough spends significant money on building accessible sidewalk ramps. That’s the law. They have no choice.

The ADA doesn’t care about your sideview mirror

However, the situation on Walnut Street is not only a safety hazard for able-bodied pedestrians, it is impassible for the disabled. Eventually, the Borough could find itself embroiled in litigation that will demand enforcement of the law with significant fines by the state for its ongoing failure to comply with the ADA. That is simple reality.

Residents have complained online that they don’t want to pay for $400 mirrors; that this is a town from the “horse and buggy days,” and worse, that anyone who dares suggest the Borough actually enforce its own ordinances must be “an idiot.”

Don’t shoot the messenger, Jenkintonians. I sympathize with residents and understand their frustrations. I too have lived in areas with horrible parking, but I never dared to flout the law or claim a right to do so.

If you want to safely park your car somewhere, may I respectfully suggest purchasing a house with a driveway or access to a parking lot. The sidewalk does not belong to you. It is, as we have always maintained, a public resource reserved for the pedestrian.