Editorial: Sidewalks in good shape benefit all

We understand that these are excruciatingly painful economic times for San Luis Obispo County, but requiring property owners to pay for the maintenance of sidewalks in front of their homes is a stingy move better off avoided.

We don’t fault county staff for raising the idea — indeed, it should be looking at every opportunity to cut costs. However, we believe the Board of Supervisors was wise to question whether this particular form of penny-pinching makes sense.

Here’s why: As communities grow, sidewalks become as essential to safe pedestrian transportation as roads are to vehicular travel. They also are necessary for providing access to those who use wheelchairs and scooters that aren’t made for uneven terrain.

While sidewalks certainly aren’t needed in the county’s rural and semi-rural neighborhoods — they could even detract from the ambience — they are appropriate in downtown commercial districts and in densely populated subdivisions.

In such locations, sidewalks aren’t so much for the benefit of individual property owners, but rather, for members of the general public to enjoy — whether they’re walking, jogging, skating or pushing a baby stroller. Because sidewalks do provide a public benefit, we believe all taxpayers have a stake in ensuring that they are well maintained, and ideally, the county should budget for that.

After all, the county wouldn’t dream of billing private property owners for fixing potholes in public roads. (At least, we hope that it wouldn’t.)

We believe that same principle of public good should apply to fixing cracks in a sidewalk.

That said, we recognize that it is perfectly legal to stick homeowners with this expense. Indeed, other jurisdictions — including Atascadero and San Luis Obispo — do so.

But the county has not charged for this service so far, and to reverse direction now would constitute a change in policy at a time when many can least afford it.

As the county budget develops, charging for sidewalk repair could turn out to be the lesser of many evils — better that than laying off a patrol deputy or closing a park or library, for example — but we hope it doesn’t come to that.

In an era when government is promoting physical fitness and urging us to minimize driving, it makes sense to provide safe pedestrian walkways in every neighborhood.

Keeping sidewalks in good condition is an excellent way to do that, and we urge the county to continue that commitment.