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Grand Avenue residents submarine sidewalk plan

Grand Avenue residents Monday disproved the adage "you can't fight city hall."

A large contingent of residents along the city street filled the City Council chambers for a public hearing on a proposed road improvement and sidewalk installation project.

Most of those in attendance questioned the rationale for putting in a sidewalk along a street that has survived for decades without one. Everyone agreed that new blacktop was needed to repair the deteriorating street.

"It's pretty obvious that the street is in need of repair," said Jim Brooks, who lived along Grand Avenue for 23 years. "I have no problem with that. I'm at a total loss as to why the city decided to put a sidewalk on Grand Avenue."

There are few young children who live along the street, limiting the argument that sidewalks are needed for the safety of kids walking to school, he said.

Brooks also criticized the plan because a number of trees would need to be removed to install a sidewalk, and one driveway would be drastically reduced in size limiting the homeowner's access to parking.

Brooks and others suggested the city consider creating a biking and walking lane in the street itself, rather than spending more money on a sidewalk.

"As a taxpayer in general, I think money could be spent better somewhere else," he said.

Charles Oberstar, a 22-year resident along Grand, said he walks his dog along the street three times each day and doesn't see a need for a sidewalk.

"I think there are other areas that need to be looked at other than Grand Avenue," he said.

Ron Duffy, who is the longest running resident of the street, agreed.

He said few people walk through the neighborhood, except when school district gym classes walk by.

Duffy and others suggested that the city develop a "grand plan" for new sidewalks in the community, rather than installing sections in a random fashion.

But Council member Jim Zajkowski said a committee has been working on a master sidewalk plan for several years, and it was Grand Avenue's turn for installation.

"This wasn't just pulled out of the clear blue sky," he said. "There is a plan for the whole city. We're looking at safety issues."

Police Chief Mark Samelstad said the priority list was developed for areas around local schools to improve safety for kids.

Council member Jim Johnston said he supports installation of sidewalks throughout New Richmond, noting the biggest mistake the council made a few years ago was not putting in a sidewalk along 8th Street.

If the city chose not to install a sidewalk along Grand Avenue this year, Johnston wondered out loud, what will 6th Street residents say next year?

"I understand your concerns," Johnston said to the residents. "But if we're going to have a plan for sidewalks, we should have more sidewalks instead of fewer. I'm in favor of sidewalks."

A motion to approve the sidewalk project tied, with Zajkowski and Johnston voting for the measure, and Renee Keating and Roberta Dale-Wozniak voting against. That left Mayor David Schnitzler in the tie-breaking driver's seat, with council members Fred Horne and Patrick Becker absent from the meeting.

The mayor obviously felt uncomfortable with the decision, pausing for a long time to gather his thoughts.

"We're just waiting for the mayor to make his decision," he said at one point to break the silence.

Eventually, Schnitzler voted against the sidewalk project, noting however that he's in favor of city sidewalks and hinting that other residents shouldn't assume that complaints will change the future plans.

In other business:

• The city approved three grant applications for future trails.

"We put them in order of importance to us," said Joe Kerlin, parks and recreation director. "We'd be pleased to get one of them approved."

The first priority for a trail route would follow County Road K out to the Fox Run development.

The second trail priority would be paving Rail Bridge Trail from 6th Street to the Industrial Park.

The third priority is a trail along Johnson Drive, from North Shore Drive to the northern border of Fox Run.

• The council requested more time to study a change in its Class A liquor license ordinance to allow for more businesses to sell off-sale beverages. Under the current ordinance, the city can no longer issue additional licenses to grocery stores, convenience stores or discount stores.

"If you open it up for five or 10 more licenses, they'll be beating down the doors," Schnitzler commented.

• The council refused a request from Shaun Bird to sell city property on the north end of Bernds Avenue. The council would like the property to remain open as a buffer zone between residential homes and a commercial business.