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The Vienna town government is advancing a proposed ordinance change that would force single-lot developers to construct sidewalks on their properties – unless there were extraordinary circumstances indicating otherwise.

Vienna Planning Commission members on Jan. 13 unanimously recommended that the Town Council approve the proposed code amendment, which would require the construction of sidewalks on infill lots.

The modified ordinance also would allow developers to apply to the town government for a temporary waiver of the sidewalk requirement, with the funds intended for that project being held in escrow by the town for sidewalk construction later.

That decision would be at the public-works director’s sole discretion and would take into account mitigating factors such as difficult topography and large trees that might have to be removed, commission members said.

Virginia lawmakers in 2019 modified state law to eliminate the requirement that locally mandated sidewalks link up with existing walkways. The change did not stipulate construction of curb-and-gutter, however.

Vienna’s proposed ordinance changes merely would do what state law allows, said Deputy Planning and Zoning Director Michael D’Orazio.

Developers seeking building permits already must submit to the town plats that show areas for public improvements, including grading plans and setbacks, said Town Attorney Steven Briglia.

Town officials rarely have waived sidewalk requirements for new subdivisions, and can ask developers to consent to having their funds escrowed for that purpose used elsewhere in town, he said.

Vienna officials have pushed hard for developers to build sidewalks, because the cost of constructing them tends to escalate much higher than the interest rates being paid on escrowed funds, said Planning Commission member David Miller.

“I can’t think of a time recently when we’ve said, ‘Don’t build it,’” he said. “I think we have the best of all scenarios. We have the ability to force [developers] to dedicate land.”

The Vienna Town Council will take up the proposed ordinance amendments at a future meeting.

While some developers in town submitted a letter opposing the proposals, residents who testified at the Planning Commission’s public hearing were strongly supportive.

Catherine Hardman, who lives on Lewis Street, N.W., urged town officials not to waive sidewalk construction without good cause.

“Sidewalks change a neighborhood very quickly,” she said.

Sidewalks increase pedestrian safety, help students walking to bus stops and school, and create a sense of community, said Brian Land, who lives along Ridge Road, S.W.

Land said his neighborhood has a sidewalk on one side of the street and not the other, and the difference is stark.

“The sidewalk side is where everybody walks their dogs,” he said. “It’s where all the kids play and all the neighborhood conversation takes place.”

The Vienna master plan’s first goal is to complete the town’s walkway network, with sidewalks on both sides of all streets, said Planning Commission member Julie Hays.

“I feel that this is our opportunity to work toward these goals without the costs falling solely on the town,” Hays said.

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