Statement to the Jenkintown Borough Council Regarding Sidewalks

This is the transcript of the statement I read to the Borough Council this evening. 

My name is Randy Garbin, and I’m here with my wife Louise Garbin. I’m here to talk about the sidewalks.

Yes, I have been notified three times about the work that needs to be done to bring the sidewalk abutting my property up to code. Yes, I am aware that Jenkintown ordinance requires property owners to bear full financial responsibility for bringing this sidewalk and curb up to code.

I have already written to all three of my councilors and to Mr. Locke about this issue. I have stated in no uncertain terms that my family simply cannot afford to comply with this requirement. After writing actual letters, I only heard from Mr. Conners in response, and only then after further prodding via email.

I have written to my state representative and to my state senator explaining our position.

I have launched a website and a Facebook page explaining our position.

I have distributed letters to about forty of my neighbors.

In all of my correspondences, I have explained in the best way I can that I do not think this law is fair, that I believe it to be oppressive, counterproductive, and is horrible policy. When I describe my situation to friends in other states, particularly in Massachusetts from where I’m from, they are more outraged than I am.

Sidewalks, like our schools, are a public good. I hardly need to say this, but I do not own that piece of land. I did not lay that concrete. Dozens more people, both in an out of our borough use it far more than I do.

By the same reasoning that you expect me to rebuild this sidewalk and curb, why not charge tuition to the school since not everyone here has a child that attends. We don’t do that because we generally recognize the overall value to our community in having a good, well-financed school system. It raises property values for everyone. Much like a beautiful streetscape.

In my brief discussion with Mr. Conners, he stated emphatically that the borough could never afford to take on this responsibility, but I’m no idiot. I’ve researched this issue, and I know two things:

1. Case law on this issue goes back to the 19th century. Municipalities sought to shift liability to land owners, and

2. When the borough wanted to build a parking lot invoking eminent domain, it managed to find (and borrow) $2.4 million.

Yes, I know that this cost was offset by a $1 million state grant, but that speaks to a larger issue. If the commonwealth has money to accommodate cars, where’s the money for pedestrians? After all, we live in a walkable community. Last month, you spoke of lobbying Harrisburg for bollards in front of the theater. How about lobbying for something that will benefit all of us?

Louise grew up in our house. Her parents moved there in 1959. My wife and I chose to stay here in Jenkintown after the death of her mother because as I said to her, you can’t always improve a location, but you can always improve a house. Since buying that house in 2002, we have since poured in at least another $80,000 in upgrades and another $42,000 in property taxes.

But after all that, we are hanging by a string. I have not worked steadily since 2012, and my wife’s position barely pays for groceries and utilities.

And now this?

I have spent the better part of my adult life promoting walkable neighborhoods. I published a magazine that had sustainable communities as a core part of its editorial mission. I have reached out to authorities on Walkability issues, and I have forwarded the response to Mr. Conners. I believe the suggestions make for a good starting point in the conversation. I would hope that Mr. Conners shared them with this board, but I wouldn’t know. He never got back to me.

I understand that just about every municipality in this Commonwealth operates by this rule. But so what? What is the result? In Philadelphia some of the poorer neighborhoods have sidewalks that would draw pity from citizens of Baghdad. This law allows municipalities to avoid making any plans to properly finance the maintenance of sidewalks. Roads, yes, but not sidewalks.

In this era where we are all worried about climate change and carbon emissions, don’t you think that maybe — just maybe — we have our priorities backwards? We are perfectly happy to subsidize the use of motor vehicles, but pedestrian infrastructure is all but an afterthought. Does this make sense to you?

Finally, this is not about the money. This is a bad law. You need to change it. If you want good sidewalks, If you want more walkable communities, this is not how you do it.

I am frankly surprised that this has not been tested in Federal court, because to me, at least, it seems clearly unconstitutional. If I had the money to replace the sidewalk and curb, I would instead spend every penny of it — and more — working to change this terrible law.

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