Blaine council deadlocks on school sidewalk project

by Tim Hennagir
Life Editor

Blaine City Council members are divided about sidewalks near Westwood intermediate and middle schools, even though a state grant would fund the project.

This mapy shows the proposed Safe Routes To School sidewalks that are proposed near Westwood Intermediate School and Westwood Middle School in Blaine. A state grant would pay for the project if it is approved by the city council. Graphic courtesy Blaine GIS

Late last summer, city staff had received notice that Blaine had secured a $202,426 Safe Routes To School (SRTS) grant to construct a six-foot sidewalk.

The program’s primary goal is to reverse a 30-year decline in the numbers of children walking to school.

Blaine staff had previously submitted three funding request applications to the pedestrian access program without success.

Areas around Westwood Intermediate School and Westwood Middle School, 701 91st Ave. N.E., were identified by city staff as program candidates.

SRTS projects are funded at 100 percent with no match required from local units of government.

An open house took place Oct. 10, 2011 with school area residents to discuss the scope of the potential, said Robert Therres, Blaine’s public services manager.

The open house invitation was mailed to 258 properties in this neighborhood and approximately 50 residents attended.

Some residents were present Feb. 2 during a workshop where council members received a project update.

Therres said city staff was ready to order a topographical site survey and conduct another open house to discuss the project’s overall design impact, as well as have city leaders receive plans and authorize bids for the sidewalk work.

According to Therres, staff wanted council direction about the design-build process. The city could terminate the sidewalk project and return the grant money.

Councilmembers Dick Swanson, Russ Herbst and Mike Bourke were opposed to the sidewalk project.

Mayor Tom Ryan, Councilmembers Katherine Kolb and Wes Hovland supported use of the Safe Routes To School (SRTS) grant.

Councilmember Dave Clark represented a potential swing vote on the project.

“I still really don’t see the need,” Swanson said during discussion. “With a six-foot sidewalk, you’ll cut quite far into some yards, especially those with narrow lots.”

He wanted to allow residents to speak during the workshop and to present a petition.

Mayor Tom Ryan overruled and said no.

A written council policy that appears on every meeting agenda states that council workshops are public meeting where interested persons are welcome to attend but not offer input.

Kolb said the council needed to look at larger considerations involved in getting kids to school, namely how the sidewalks would tie to trail access.

Hovland said he was in favor of the sidewalk project, but had concerns with the six-foot width. Hovland suggested that the sidewalks be scaled back to four feet.

Ryan said he had spoken with representatives from the Church of St. Timothy, 707 89th Ave. N.E., about the project. “St. Tim’s isn’t opposed to it,” Ryan said.

Bourke replied: “I don’t think installing a new sidewalk will stop [students] from cutting across the church parking lot.”

Herbst wanted the project brought to a vote during a regular council meeting.

Swanson said he originally wanted public meetings on the sidewalk project before the city became involved the in grant process.

“It sends a bad message [to the state] if we turn this grant down,” Ryan said.

Therres said the city’s deadline for its project application was still a year away.

“I think the best path is to bring it forward. It’s the shortest path to resolution,” Clark said, referring to the deadlocked discussion.

Clark wanted to see additional documentation on project criteria before a city council vote, he said.

Council directed City Manager Clark Arneson to place the project on the council’s March 15 regular meeting agenda.

Tim Hennagir is at [email protected]