NEWS HEADLINES

Decatur P&Z gets more direction on sidewalk rules

By Bob Buckel | Published Wednesday, August 27, 2014

It’s not black-and-white, but Planning and Zoning Commission chairman Davey Edwards did get some direction from the Decatur City Council Monday evening on the issue of sidewalks, curbs and gutters.

Exceptions are rare.

Common sense is the key.

City ordinance requires that whenever a house is built or a piece of property is developed, curbs, gutters and sidewalks must be installed, or property owners must deposit the money to build them with the city, so they can be done the next time the street is upgraded.

“Granting variances is as much art as it is science,” City Attorney Mason Woodruff said. “You first try to look at the ordinance, but sometimes it’s a round peg and it just won’t fit in a square hole. You’ve got to use common sense.

“It’s not possible to write guidelines that will account for every possible situation. That’s why you have people on the commission who have good judgment, good sense and some experience with properties.”

P&Z had two requests on the council’s agenda Monday. One asked “how best to proceed” when citizens request variances to the ordinance. The other asked how the funds are handled when citizens escrow the money with the city.

“We are seeing a lot more [variance requests] over the last year-and-a-half,” Edwards said. “We still want to do it black-and-white – here’s the ordinance. We want them to understand that we’re held to the ordinance.

“I guess we just want the council to say, ‘You’re OK, you’re doing a good job.’ It makes us feel better.”

The consensus was that P&Z is doing its job – and once in a while, that may mean granting a variance.

MAKING AN EXCEPTION

That’s exactly what the council did Monday, approving the P&Z’s unanimous recommendation that property owner Stephen Eckert not be required to install just over 95 feet of sidewalk along Miller Street as he re-plats and develops a property at 300 Shoemaker.

The Miller Street side is well above street level and has an old stone retaining wall that would have to come out. The project would likely cost around $25,000, City Engineer Earl Smith said.

That would be the city’s expense, since the wall is in the city’s right-of-way.

“It’s not much different from the original owner putting in curb, gutter and sidewalk,” Mason Woodruff said. “From that point forward it’s our problem.”

Cary Bohn said it was the first time he’d seen the city grant a variance since he’s been on the council.

“I’ve seen the council before just follow a straight line on it,” he said. “Usually when we deny these, the big issue is safety – so I guess what we’re saying here is, this a big enough expense, a big enough burden, to not put in a sidewalk.

“I know we can’t quantify it completely, but it’s a healthy discussion to have.”

In general, Mayor Martin Woodruff said there are no written guidelines other than the ordinance itself.

“My judgement would be that the ordinance needs to be followed at all times, unless there is an unusual situation where the commission can be convinced that not enforcing the standards would be appropriate,” he said.

Planning Director Dedra Ragland brought in a chart showing all the variance requests back through 2007. In those seven years, including this year so far, the council has fielded 36 requests. Twenty-five have been approved – seven in the city’s ETJ and 17 along state highways (one was both).

Until Monday, only two had been approved that did not fit one of those categories – both in 2007.

TRACKING THE FUNDS

The P&Z also wanted to know how the city handles escrowed funds. Edwards got a clear answer.

The city deposits those funds into its street improvement account and keeps track of whose money is in there, and how much. That money is earmarked for that specific project. Going forward, the city will also create a liability entry on its books, making it clear that the escrowed money does not belong to the city.

“We treat it like a water deposit, because it’s really not our money,” City Manager Brett Shannon said. “Regarding the question of somebody paying in escrow and it being used somewhere else, that’s never happened. That violates the whole spirit of escrowing funds.”

Shannon said the record includes not only the property owner’s name, but the legal description of the property. The funds are attached to the property itself.

“Whenever we do the project, we use that money,” he said. “That’s what we did on Deer Park [which was paved over the summer]. We knew we had Crossroads Church escrowed, so when we re-did the street we put in the curb and gutter.”

If a resident escrows the funds, then decides to do the project himself, he can get the funds back and build his own sidewalk.

“I think a lot of the public that comes in and they’re asking for that variance, that’s their concern – ‘If I’m going to do that, where does it go?’” Edwards said. “I think if they understood that it does go to improving their lot, they’d be more willing to take that option.”

CITY, ENGINEER TO MEET ON RAW WATER LINE BREAKS

With Public Works Director Earl Smith leaving at the end of the month, Decatur city officials were already planning to meet with engineer Jeff James at the Fort Worth firm Kimley-Horn next week. In the absence of their staff engineer, it’s likely they will look more to Kimley-Horn until a successor is found.

Now, water line breaks will be on the agenda.

Decatur crews repaired a break Aug. 12 in the 20-inch PVC water transmission line that brings raw water from Lake Bridgeport into the city’s treatment plant. It was the latest of “three or four” breaks in the last six months – in a line that is less than 10 years old.

“It seems like this raw water line has given us more problems than normal, for whatever reason, this summer,” City Manager Brett Shannon said Tuesday. “Until this last one, it was concentrated in one general area. This one was quite a bit farther west.”

Shannon said he and Smith are investigating to see where the breaks have been. The line was installed in phases and may have been put in by different contractors.

Although the city has funds built into the budget for these types of repairs, they are getting expensive.

“Most of the time, we’ve had to bring in an outside contractor with a big track hoe, just to dig it up,” he said. “It’s a big pipe, and it’s 10 or 12 feet deep in some places.

“Typically, it costs around $10,000 – not including my men’s labor,” he added. “It’s more than a slight nuisance.”

So far, the city’s water supply has not been affected – in fact, water users likely never noticed, since the city’s storage tanks were full and the plant was back up and running before they emptied.

Some of the breaks can be fixed in four or five hours, he noted, while others take 10 or 12. The recent one was fixed and covered up when workers realized they had gotten a bad clamp and had to dig it up again. The whole process took more like 20 hours.

Shannon said they’ll be asking James to look into the process, providing him with photos and other information.

“We want to have the discussion with Jeff, tell him here’s what we’re finding when we get these breaks,” he said. “Whether it’s the soil, bad pipe or whatever it is – we’d like for them to stop.”

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