Monday, April 11, 2011

eminent domain : evil or benign?

I had a good conversational debate with a neighbor this morning on the issue of eminent domain. As I left the house and crossed the street, I noticed a new sign our neighbors across the street had posted. Tacked to a tree in their front yard, the sign read "We want a sidewalk and bike lanes. Place sidewalk here" with an arrow pointed down to the base of the tree (about 7 feet into their current property). The issue was therefore on my mind when I arrived at the bus stop at about the same time as the other neighbor.

A bit of context before I go into our debate: Hanshaw Road has an active sign culture. A fellow on the corner of Hanshaw and Warren changes his handpainted signs, which present political viewpoints and quotations, on a regular basis. He's fought for the right to post these signs on his property, when challenged by neighbors. Two houses down from me, the woman on the corner of Hanshaw and Blackstone frequently posts political signs and anti-fracking posters. Over the past few weeks, new, professionally produced signs have cropped up all along Hanshaw. Some read "We Want the Walk!" and others "Say No to Eminent Domain on Hanshaw." The residents along Hanshaw Road generally do not shy away from public discourse. The city's plan--to put in a sidewalk on the northern side of Hanshaw Road, and widen and pave the shoulders to make them negotiable for bicyclists--has created a rift between neighbors.

I had barely finished saying "good morning" when the neighbor asked me what I thought of the plan to widen the road. I said that I was in favor of sidewalks and more space for bicyclists. I am not in favor of changing the four-way-stop intersection to a signal intersection. He said he was solidly against eminent domain, but he said he had wanted to ask me because of my landscape architecture background.

Overall, it was a good debate, though I don't think I changed his mind at all. He is against any government involvement with homeowers' property, except in an emergency. He dismissed my argument that eminent domain can be necessary to implement long-term-positive changes in town planning. I realize that this view may make it sound as though I think that sometimes homeowners don't know what's good for them. Yes, sometimes I believe they really don't know. Sometimes city planners and landscape architects have reviewed the situation, and decided on a combination of features that will improve both the quality of the street and the city as a whole. I take a pragmatic view and believe that public works are more important than individual property.

Near the end of the conversation he said "if some people are for the sidewalk and others against it, then they can break the sidewalk in the yards of those who don't want it and resume it in yards of those who do." "But there is a heaping amount of evidence that discontinuous sidewalks are even more unsafe than no sidewalks at all," I countered. I suggested that he read Jane Jacobs "The Death and Life of Great American Cities" for its sections on how sidewalks make neighborhoods more safe. He said that there are other ways to make neighborhoods safe, such as better lighting, neighborhood meetings, and community events. I wholeheartedly agreed. As a commuter who has often biked or walked home along Hanshaw at night, I know it's very poorly lit. However, I said, sidewalks are more safe for families with young children, and are shown to raise property values which attract and keep the types of residents most likely to participate in community action.

Part of the issue, I think, is that he lives just off of Hanshaw, and his street has more of the families with children and long-term residents than the section of Hanshaw most under dispute, where I live with the Bradbury family. He argued that people from this area are invited to the community events he spoke of, but from my and the Bradburys' experience, there isn't a strong community feeling among neighbors living on our section of the street (between Warren and Pleasant Grove). There is more of a "my property my fortress" view (one neighbor even places large buckets at the end of his driveway to prevent anyone from using his driveway to turn around). I think a sidewalk would help strengthen community by building in a commonly shared space that physically links neighbors. He thinks eminent domain is all-around bad. I think it can be useful and that people should suck it up sometimes for the greater good. What do you think?

Note: I have since learned that the plans for Hanshaw Road do not include widening the driving lanes, and that the speed on the road is not expected to increase. The shoulders will be widened and paved, which will visually widen the road.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I live in the Salem Drive subdivision just off Hanshaw. The lack of light pollution is a benefit to me--for once in my life I can turn the lights off at bedtime and not have street lamps illuminating my bedroom! The lack of sidewalks and lights makes the neighborhood peaceful and less visually cluttered.

I ride my bike every day I can, and sometimes walk up Hashaw from Cornell. I do this during the day and after dark. The condition of the pavement makes it a scary ride and mildly hazardous to walk. It's obvious that the road has undergone many patch jobs without a proper repaving in many years.

Given the town's track record maintaining the road itself, why would anyone trust the town to expand its maintenance needs further with a sidewalk? I'd much rather see the money used to properly maintain the existing road with smooth pavement and a shoulder wide enough to use for riding or walking. The sidewalk would just be another maintenance need that will be ignored. Who will pay to salt it during the winter?

Also, the shoulder on Warren Road along the new rubber sidewalk is not good for biking. Why? The sidewalk traps gravel and other road hazards along the road, rather than allowing it to roll off the road. This means I have to ride my bike in the traffic lane to avoid flat tires. Of course, it doesn't get swept regularly, so this stuff builds up until I have gravel hitting me in the face as I ride.