Mr. Answer man, could you tell us why a group of neighbors in the northeast Orlando community of Audubon Park fought the city when it tried to install sidewalks in their neighborhood?
Residents allege that sidewalks bring skateboarders and burglars into yards and that they aren't needed because Audubon Park is a safe, friendly community that has had zero accidents in recent memory. Safety concerns were raised by residents who said sidewalks would increase accidents because residents would be forced to park their second and third cars on the streets, out of the sidewalks' path, thereby creating a visual barrier that would prevent drivers from seeing children darting into the street. Neighbors also claim that America's democratic process has been thwarted because nobody bothered to get their input before the city decided to fund its "sidewalk safety initiative" this past September. Failing to get public input is a claim often levied against city officials.
But aren't sidewalks good?
The Institute of Transportation Engineers, the Federal Highway Administration (FHA) and the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials recommend installing sidewalks on both sides of residential streets and main arteries. Because of cost, they recommend sidewalks on only one side of rural roadways and, because of safety, none for interstate highways.
According to a well-regarded 1988 FHA study, a walker is 2.6 times more likely to be struck by a car on streets with no sidewalks and 1.2 times more likely to be struck if there are sidewalks on only one side of the street. As for cars parked in a roadway, Theo Petritsch, Florida's bicycle and pedestrian coordinator, argues that they might actually cause fewer accidents. They make drivers slow down, decreasing the risk and severity of accidents, and become a barrier for pedestrians on the sidewalk. Besides, Petritsch says, second and third cars parked in a driveway often present the same kind of visual barrier as cars parked in the street. "Are you worried about a kid stepping between cars or do you want kids out in the street all the time?" he asks. "That's a pretty weighted argument."
Yes, but I'd rather people not think they are invited to steal things from me because I have a sidewalk.
There is no empirical or anecdotal evidence that sidewalks increase crime. The idea, according to Mighk Wilson, Metroplan Orlando's bicycle and pedestrian coordinator, is "ludicrous." Sidewalks are an emotional issue because some people consider them invasive. Consequently, hyperbole abounds. One Audubon Park resident said that by installing sidewalks, the city was inviting people to walk by her house and spit on her windows. Reality check: There have been no reports of spontaneous spitting because of sidewalks.
What about public input? Don't residents have a right to complain about sidewalks?
Yes, and they did -- by E-mail, phone, letters and so on. Residents claim they haven't been heard but they've been heard plenty. They complain now because they don't like the fact that they were on the losing end of the issue. Patty Sheehan, their commissioner, hosted a public workshop May 8 at Leu Gardens. It was mostly a Q&A session between school and city officials and Audubon Park residents. Not every resident was anti-sidewalk. Some expressed concerns about the disabled's access to sidewalks and one resident delivered an "I have a dream" recitation. The hearing was kind of like a WWF match, with both sides cheering for speakers who represented their viewpoints. Several times emotions boiled over and Sheehan threatened to throw out one attendee because he kept butting in. After the meeting, some Audubon Park residents became upset because Sheehan decided not to halt the sidewalks in their neighborhood. She notified about 1,100 Audubon Park residents by mail. Residents not only spoke against sidewalks at the Leu Gardens meeting, they also spoke at the June 4 City Council meeting, evoking the Constitution with enough fury to make a Minuteman weep.
Didn't a poll show that most Audubon Park residents don't want sidewalks?
No. Only three streets in Audubon Park are receiving sidewalks, and then only on one side, not both. A poll showed that a majority of residents on the three streets didn't want them. Sidewalk critics used those numbers to establish that our democratic process was being trampled upon and that their voices were being negated. That's wrongheaded. America is not founded on principles of direct democracy. Orlando residents do not vote every time the Public Works Department wants to repair a broken sewer main. America is based on representative democracy. Audubon Park's representative, Sheehan, agreed that the three streets, Ibis, Osprey and Chelsea, needed sidewalks, ostensibly to connect the east side of Audubon Park to sidewalks on the west side where Audubon Park Elementary School is located.
What about the allegation that Sheehan is repaying two of her constituents by giving them sidewalks?
The notion is ridiculous and unfounded. The city's $3 million sidewalk program evolved out of the Safety Summit 2000, which was hosted by Orange County Public Schools. School officials have been concerned about pedestrian safety for decades, especially since their data showed that school kids are 38 percent more likely than adults to be involved in pedestrian accidents. Sheehan wasn't even a commissioner when the summit took place on Jan. 27, 2000. After the summit, school officials sent a list of 64 streets, ranked in order of importance, to Orlando officials with their recommendation to put in sidewalks. (Aububon Park's three streets were ranked fourth.) Sheehan and other commissioners responded to that summit by funding the sidewalk program, of which Audubon Park is only a tiny part. The neighborhood is receiving eight-tenths of a mile of new sidewalk; the citywide project calls for 16 miles, 13 of which are already in the ground.
That's fine. But you sidestepped the issue of political payback.
Right. The idea of Sheehan repaying two of her constituents by laying sidewalk in front of 49 homes in her district would not hold muster with the state's Ethics Commission or law enforcement officials. Sheehan would have to benefit personally from the project or she'd have to use city funds to build something like a swimming pool in her constituents' back yards. That, obviously, is not the case. The person making most of the allegations against Sheehan is a retired Navy vet named Jim Wilson. Wilson, who was received like a rock star at the Leu Gardens meeting, is the coordinator of Audubon Park's Neighborhood Watch program and was named one of Orlando's volunteers of the year in 1998. Wilson has accused two men in Audubon Park, James Holt and Bill Hall, of receiving sidewalks because they contributed a total of $150 to Sheehan's campaign. Neither man, it should be noted, is receiving sidewalks in front of his house. Wilson, meanwhile, was such an arduous supporter of Sheehan's opponent, Bill Bagley, that Bagley had to repay Wilson and his wife almost $1,500 for supplies and postage. How should sidewalk supporters feel about that?
At the Leu Gardens meeting, Wilson said sidewalks were "not a safety issue. There's more to this. You're going to have to get it out of your commissioner why we're here at all" -- an insinuation that Sheehan had nefarious reasons for pushing forward. But that's an inept way to accuse somebody of wrongdoing. Whistleblowers must have specific allegations against public officials, including evidence and other documentation. Resorting to innuendo is bad form. And can lead to slander.
It sounds as if sidewalk opponents are wrong about a lot of things. Do they deserve to be ridiculed?
It would be easy to present them as xenophobic and backwards. But residents are genuinely disturbed about the issue even if their arguments are specious. In the name of democracy, they should be encouraged to speak on issues important to them. Besides, residents are already smarting over a couple of Sentinel articles that accused them of insanity and rubbed their faces in the fact they were getting sidewalks. The first paragraph of one story began, "The verdict is in: Audubon Park will get sidewalks like it or not." Apparently, explanatory journalism in daily newspapers is a thing of the past.
Other communities also have complained about sidewalks, several in Orlando. In Jacksonville six years ago, residents didn't want sidewalks installed on US-17, which ran behind their houses, because they felt it would invite burglars to steal their televisions. Of course, that never happened.
On the other hand, Sheehan doesn't deserve nearly the grief she's gotten. When Orlando Weekly visited her at City Hall two weeks ago, Sheehan seemed on edge and visibly fatigued. She says she's had trouble sleeping ever since people began driving past her house calling her a bitch and a liar. After the June 4 council meeting, she claims she was followed, presumably by a sidewalk opponent. "Jim Wilson thinks I'm sitting up here laughing at Audubon Park," says Sheehan, who, ironically, took office last June with a reputation as a neighborhood-friendly representative. "That's not the case. I don't feel good. I feel like crap. It tears me in different directions because of the issues involved: Should it be majority rules or should it be a safety issue?"
Isn't there anyone else for sidewalk critics to pick on?
They could focus on school board member Linda Sutherland, whose district includes Audubon Park. Sutherland has pushed for sidewalks since becoming a school board member nearly a decade ago. She's called opposition to sidewalks in Audubon Park "asinine."
Mayor Glenda Hood also seems to have gotten a free ride. Hood didn't make an appearance at the Leu Gardens meeting and missed a golden opportunity at the June 4 council meeting to show statesmanship and diplomacy, neither of which are her trademarks. After sidewalk critics spoke, Hood said she'd entertain a motion to adjourn the meeting. Commissioner Daisy Lynum quickly made it, and everybody laughed to relieve the tension. Here was a time, more than any other, for Hood to show support for Sheehan and attempt to soothe tensions with Audubon Park. More and more, she's looking like a lame duck mayor -- even though she has three years left on her current, and probably last, term in office.
Won't this all be over in a few weeks anyway? Sidewalk construction in Audubon Park already has begun and is expected to be completed in a few weeks.
Residents have filed an unusual motion in state court asking a three-judge panel to force the City Council to hold a hearing on sidewalks in Audubon Park. Additionally, the writ of mandamus, as it's called, asks that the court force City Hall to follow its own policies "regarding the wishes of the majority of the affected property owners." In other words, to tear up the sidewalks, which would be an obvious public-relations nightmare for the city. The case is a longshot. It says that city leaders violated Chapter 3, Section 10 of the city code. But that section says city leaders have the power to force homeowners to build sidewalks or make residents pay if the city installs them. It doesn't say anything about holding public hearings if the city is paying for construction, as is the case in Audubon Park.
So the only thing Audubon Park residents can do is vote Sheehan out of office in three years?
Ironically, Sheehan might be ceding Audubon Park to District 3 Commissioner Vicki Vargo as part of the council's redistricting plan. In one preliminary redistricting map, Vargo, who needs to add several thousand residents to her district, would add Audubon Park to her jurisdiction. In another version, she gets the homes around Lake Eola. However, Mimi Roberts of the Lake Eola Heights Neighborhood Association has already sent a letter to the redistricting committee saying Lake Eola homeowners would rather stay in Sheehan's district because they identify with Colonialtown, where Sheehan lives.
Audubon Park residents shouldn't get too psyched up about Vargo, though. She isn't soft on sidewalks. In some ways, she might have be less democratic than Sheehan in handling sidewalk squabbles. For example, when residents of a street in Vargo's district, Hazel Drive, were concerned about sidewalks, she held a meeting with residents of the street, instead of the entire neighborhood. The result: the sidewalks went in without a lot of hoopla, bitterness -- or media attention.