Wednesday, July 25, 2007

A question of change at Potomac sidewalk hearing

Falls Chapel Way sidewalk plan headed for decision

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Long-time homeowners who face having a new 5-foot-wide sidewalk built through their front yards along Falls Chapel Way in Potomac had their say Thursday during a public hearing in Rockville.

And almost without exception, their shared refrain was an emphatic ‘‘no” to the plan to install the concrete pathway.

‘‘It would change the character of our neighborhood,” said Catherine McDaniel of the plan to fill a 3,200-foot gap in the sidewalk between Cold Spring and Orchard Beach roads.

Homeowners like McDaniel, with a 30-year plus history of living on the tree-shaded street, questioned the need for a sidewalk where it was deemed safe for their own children to walk to nearby Cold Spring Elementary School.

‘‘[A sidewalk] would create other safety concerns...such as elderly, disabled residents having to shovel snow,” McDaniel said. ‘‘Since neither a safety problem’s been demonstrated nor any other need for a sidewalk exists...there’s no need to go forward.”

But safety is a concern, and the neighborhood has changed, said those in favor of the sidewalk.

Traffic speeds and volume increased when the former dead-end was made a through street to Tuckerman Lane, said Jonathon Lusk, a homeowner also facing the loss of a wide swath of his lawn.

‘‘I’m not especially thrilled to give up my front yard for a county right-of-way...but it’s the right thing to do,” he said.

The hearing was the second before Scott W. Reilly, Montgomery County assistant chief administrative officer, as he considers a recommendation to forward to County Executive Isiah Leggett (D).

The record remains open until 5 p.m. Aug. 2. Reilly hopes to submit his report to Leggett in September, he said.

This is the second time the sidewalk project has come up in recent years. In 2004, it was dropped after a hearing examiner cited a lack of evidence of safety problems and a negative visual impact since some 30 trees would be removed.

Opponents to the plan said nothing has changed since that decision, and that a survey conducted this spring by the Fox Hills West Citizens Association that showed support for the sidewalk was seriously flawed.

But county planners say the sidewalk is needed to improve safety along the road and to connect existing sidewalks at Cold Spring Elementary School and Falls Road Park. They cite an ‘‘overwhelming public use” due to four vehicle accidents in the area, including one involving a pedestrian. Supporters said that the failed attempt of 2004, and the controversy swirling around the issue since the spring, simply served to put it on their radar screen.

‘‘Some people have asked what’s changed,” said Paul Robbins. ‘‘In 2004, I wasn’t even aware of this as an issue. It’s more transparent than last time, there’s more information, and that’s why people are coming [to speak] in support of it.”

Even those supporting the plan expressed sympathy for the homeowners at risk of losing portions of their lawns, but asked that the greater good be remembered.

‘‘Fox Chapel Way is attractive without a sidewalk and will be as attractive with a sidewalk — and safer,” said Jerry Langdon.