Vienna Town Council approves nine Robinson Trust-funded sidewalk projects for design phase

The Vienna Town Council voted Monday night (April 26) to authorize sidewalk engineering studies for nine stretches of streets throughout town.

The studies — and construction costs down the road, if the council approves the projects for implementation — will be funded by the Maud Ferris Robinson Charitable Trust. Robinson, a former councilmember, left more than $7 million to the town after her death in 2019 to pay for sidewalks.

The vote raised the number of Robinson-funded projects in the design phase to 14. In addition, two projects were approved for construction, and the town will seek the thumbs-up for construction on another two projects in less than a month, according to Department of Public Works Director Michael Gallagher.

The approval comes as town officials and pedestrian advocates call for more action on sidewalk projects, pointing to the dwindling time the town has to spend the bequeathed funds. Vienna has until fall 2024 to use the bequest.

“Time is ticking,” Mayor Linda Colbert said.

As of early 2020, the town had roughly 85 miles of sidewalk. The Robinson trust focuses on filling in missing patches of sidewalks that weren’t already planned or likely to be funded through other grants.

Public opposition previously led the Vienna Town Council to defer six projects. This time, the council forged ahead despite a number of speakers who voiced concerns.

More than 30 people participated in the council’s public hearing on the Robinson trust initiative. The attendees were split on the issue, voicing broad concerns — losing lawn space or mature trees — as well as ones related to specific stretches of road.

With the exception of Councilmember Nisha Patel, who abstained, the full town council joined Colbert in voting to approve the following streets for sidewalk engineering studies:

  • Alma Street SE: even side from Delano Drive SE to Follin Lane SE ($60,000)
  • Birch Street SW: odd side from Battle Street SW to Plum Street SW ($70,000)
  • Blackstone Terrace NW: even side from Lawyers Road NW to Holmes Drive NW ($40,000)
  • Charles Street SE: odd side from Locust Street SE to Branch Road SE ($25,000)
  • Cherry Circle SW: both sides from the cul-de-sac to Cottage Street SW ($30,000)
  • Elmar Drive SE/SW: west side from Park Street SE to Desale Street SW ($60,000)
  • Oak Street SW: odd side from Center Street S to Birch Street SW ($70,000)
  • Symphony Circle SW: both sides from the cul-de-sac to Melody Lane SW ($65,000)
  • Timber Lane SW: odd side from Tapawingo Road SW to Harmony Drive SW ($50,000)

The town also approved construction spending for sidewalks along Pleasant Street SW from Courthouse Road to Maple Avenue and on Cabin Road SE from Branch Road to Glyndon Street.

Colbert said the town will continue accepting written comments and will work with residents. She described sidewalk projects as part of the government’s obligation to support public safety, since they help many residents travel, from people with strollers to older individuals and people with limited mobility.

“A community with sidewalks is healthy. It’s friendly. And most importantly, it is safe,” Colbert said.

Many residents said they support sidewalks generally but had objections to the specific projects that were on the table.

A number asked the council to consider the odd side of Alma Street SE instead, noting that the even side has fire hydrants and utility poles. They also argued that, if it was put on the odd side, the new sidewalk could link up with an existing sidewalk that kids use to access Wildwood Park, rather than requiring them to cross the street to remain on the pavement.

However, a survey of Alma Street SE residents indicated that more houses on the even side support a sidewalk than their neighbors on the odd side.

Sidewalk survey results by address along Alma Street SE indicate that more residents on the even side support a sidewalk than the odd side (Image via Town of Vienna)

Many neighbors were split on Charles Street SE, an “L”-shaped street that connects Locust and Branch Streets SE. 60% of residents voiced disapproval of the proposal in a town survey, saying that the road is too narrow and that sidewalks would cut down on their yards and put trees in danger.

“Before we start adding sidewalks to trees like Charles, complete them on Locust and Branch, which have more traffic on them and connect to the supermarket, a dog park and the W&OD Trail,” Todd Dunbar said. “If we can’t do that, can we not find the streets [where residents] do want them?”

Proponents said sidewalks would connect missing links: a sidewalk that leads nowhere at one end and two Americans with Disabilities Act-accessible ramps that connect to nothing at the other end.

“These discussions about sidewalks have me a little distressed because it’s pitting neighbor against neighbor,” Emily Korff said. “I urge the council to listen to the experts and move forward with the projects presented to you.”

Pedestrian Advisory Councilmember Julie Hays said the town needs to achieve its walkability goals and release more information on the process.

“I completely oppose the notion of landowners adjacent to proposed rights-of-way being given veto power to a common good that will benefit Vienna families for generations to come,” she said.

Others were disgruntled about what they described as a lack of dialogue with the Department of Public Works. Dale Griffiths said he has lived in town since 1987 and has “never seen anything shoved down the throats of this town more than this.”

Patel said she needs a list of every eligible street in the town. That information would help the council approve sidewalks for high-priority arteries and streets with excited residents, she said.

“Everybody who has come to speak to us has had very valid points. It’s a tough position to vote without knowing all the facts,” she said.

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