Infrastructure

New Houston ordinance allows property owners to opt out of building sidewalk, but must pay a fee instead

Mayor Sylvester Turner said the new fee will prevent what the city calls “sidewalks to nowhere” from continuing to develop in the city. 

Gail Delaughter
FILE: Edgemoor Street near Renwick. Only one side of the street has a sidewalk, and a Kinder survey found that was a common complaint in Gulfton. The city’s new ordinance would allow homeowners and developers to choose if they want to build a sidewalk in front of their property, or pay a fee for one.

Homeowners and developers will now be able to choose if they want to build a sidewalk in front of their property. Houston City Council voted on Wednesday to implement a "Fee in Lieu of Sidewalk Construction” Ordinance.

The ordinance, which will go into effect March 1, will allow residents that opt out of putting a sidewalk in front of their home, to pay a fee of $12 per square foot of new sidewalks that would have been constructed if the homeowner agreed to put a sidewalk in place. For example, a single family home with a 25 feet frontage lot can reject putting a sidewalk in place, and pay a $1,500 fee if it meets certain criteria that makes building a sidewalk achievable.

Mayor Sylvester Turner said the new fee will prevent what the city calls "sidewalks to nowhere" from continuing to develop in the city.

"One of the reasons why we are doing this is because under the current system, people are having to build sidewalks and if you look in certain places, they build a sidewalk, and there’s no place for people to go."

Under the city's current sidewalk ordinance, homeowners and developers are required to build sidewalks in front of a property unless they meet certain exemptions. The fee gives property owners and developers an option, but also remains in compliance with the city's current sidewalk construction requirements.

Council member Edward Pollard acknowledged that sidewalks need to be built to create better mobility for residents, but a fee should not be attached if someone rejects wanting a sidewalk.

"I just don’t know why we’re putting a fee attached to it," he said. "I’m all for fees when it makes sense, but if the sidewalk is to nowhere – then we’re basically telling the developer either build a sidewalk to nowhere, or don’t build the sidewalk, but give us some money."

The fees collected will go into a fund that's projected to bring in $1.7 million for the city to build new sidewalks. The city currently has a sidewalk program that generates $3.3 million annually to construct new sidewalks and ramps along roads towards schools, major thoroughfares, and improves accessibility for people with disabilities.

The ordinance does pertain to new sidewalks, but council members Robert Gallegos, Mary Nan Huffman, and Mike Knox wanted the ordinance to include repairing sidewalks.

"We need sidewalks, but we also need to repair our existing sidewalk," said District I Council member Robert Gallegos. "And unfortunately, this is not going to address that due the fact that it’s just for new sidewalks, or sidewalk modifications."

Gallegos said he would much rather use his district service funds to improve parks and other amenities in his district, but instead they are being used to repair aging sidewalks.

Mayor Turner said he would support a budgetary amendment to generate funding for repairs due Council members Gallegos and Huffman proposing an amendment to include repairs into the ordinance.

"I will support this budgetary amendment at that time to do exactly what you were saying," he said. "So it doesn’t have to come from your fund balance, and it keeps this item clean."

The ordinance divides Houston into 17 service areas. 70% of the fees collected will be spent within the areas where the fees were collected and 30% would be put into a fund that will be used to construct sidewalks citywide.

"We looked at the previous ordinance and heard our customers. Simply put, if you are building or rebuilding in a neighborhood that doesn't have sidewalks, we're not going to build an unconnected segment of sidewalk that does not support Houstonians' needs," said Planning and Development Director Margaret Wallace Brown. "However, it is important to build out our sidewalk network, and this new fund will help make that possible.

Council Member Mike Knox initially tagged the item stating repairs should be included in the ordinance and builders should be given the option of the fee in lieu – as it pertains to situations where sidewalks can't be built because of things like drainage ditches.

"The point that I wanted to make here is that we have an opportunity to create funding for this very thing that we want to do right now.," he said. "We don’t have to wait until next May to get our budget stuff done."

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