GEORGIA – The Georgia selectboard and planning commission will come together next month as a Sidewalk Committee to discuss the construction of sidewalks within Georgia’s South Village district.
Constructing sidewalks in the village area would be one of the first steps taken by the town since a large planning study completed earlier this year detailed ways the town could foster growth in the area through transportation infrastructure.
The selectboard and planning commission met last week to discuss pedestrian paths in the area, where, in the words of several board members, piecemeal sidewalks built by businesses in the village had created sidewalks leading “nowhere.”
“We’ve got money set aside for sidewalks on some of the projects that we’re doing,” planning commission chair Suzanna Brown told the selectboard. “It’d be nice to link things together.”
According to Brown, there were a handful of businesses within the district that had money possibly set aside for sidewalks.
The South Village District is an area spanning the southern bounds of Georgia along Route 7, running south from Interstate 89 to Ballard Road.
The district sits at the center of much of the residential growth Georgia is currently experiencing, and, according to planning coordinator Larry Lewack, the town is anticipating even larger developments on Walnut Road and in the retired Homestead Campground.
Sidewalks factored in heavily into a large planning document recently penned in collaboration between the town, the Northwest Regional Planning Commission and the Vermont Agency of Transportation.
The document, the South Village Master Transportation Plan, imagined continued development in the area for the next 20 years and suggested a series of projects that would be able to continue encouraging and guiding that growth.
That plan was formally accepted by the selectboard earlier this year.
According to Brown, the selectboard had, in the past, asked the planning commission to hold off on its zoning laws’ mandate for building sidewalks near new developments, specifically involving Ballard Road.
“There’s a lot of people who use Ballard Road to walk, bike, stroll whatever, and at one point we had an offer for a sidewalk there and the selectboard told us to take it out of the plan,” Brown said. “Now we don’t have a sidewalk but I think there’s a need for a sidewalk.”
A resident from the neighborhood immediately south of the South Village district seconded the need for sidewalks, telling the selectboard ,“There’s a lot of residents in that area that are walking. There’s people always constantly walking on that road, which is very dangerous.”
“There’s many times where we’d just want to walk down the road to the store rather than take our car,” she said. “But it’s to the point, it’s not worth risking my life to walk on that road.”
According to the selectboard’s vice chair Steve Lamos, the board’s acceptance of the South Village transportation plan, which explicitly recommends sidewalks for the area, amounted to an endorsement of sidewalks within the village area.
He also told the planning commission proposed sidewalks would have to fit within the scope of the South Village plan before he would be willing to approve sidewalk construction.
“The idea of approving that was to have some kind of framework, so as we make things like this, we don’t conflict with the plan,” Lamos said. “Whatever sidewalks you would propose... would need to be positioned to not conflict with the South Village plan.”
The selectboard also raised the question of maintenance of those sidewalks, as, according to road foreman Todd Cadieux, Georgia’s highway department was already stretched thin without active sidewalk maintenance.
Currently, under Georgia’s existing sidewalk ordinance, property owners were required to maintain sidewalks.
Placing that responsibility on the town, a recommendation of the town’s planning coordinator Lewack, would likely require the town to add staff to its highway department and possibly purchase equipment.
“On the highway department side of it, you’re kind of limited to what you can do with a plow,” Cadieux said. “We’re struggling right now to make our time for the roads, so I would say you might want to end up adding another person at that point if we’re going to be maintaining sidewalks.”
According to Brown, it was actually the question of maintenance that kept a former iteration of the selectboard from mandating sidewalks on Ballard Road, where the South Village plan listed sidewalk construction as a priority.
“The selectboard said it was going to be a liability to the town and asked us to take it off the plan before it was approved,” Brown said.
Lewack, meanwhile, suggested it might only cost the town around $10,000 annually.
“$10,000 on whatever the town budget is on an annual basis is not going to put in a big dent,” Lewack said.
Lamos warned against purchasing equipment specifically for sidewalk maintenance when there were still only a few stretches of sidewalk built around Georgia.
He compared Georgia to St. Albans City in that regard, where the demand for sidewalk maintenance was enough to justify the public works department owning equipment for plowing sidewalks during the winter.
“They have a lot of sidewalks and it’s justifiable, but we’re not there yet,” Lamos said.
The two boards concluded the best option for the town would be to set aside time to coalesce as a formal Sidewalk Committee with additional input from Lewack and Cadieux,, setting a meeting date for Dec. 2.
“We’ll solicit public opinion once we come up with a draft or an ordinance,” selectboard chair Matt Crawford said. “Where we put them, who’s going to pay for them, [and] what the stomach is for the town.”