BL 2019-1659 Overview and Thoughts

In 2017 Walk Bike Nashville supported, and helped pass “The Sidewalk Bill”, BL2917-493. This bill dramatically increased the requirements for sidewalks during development. For the first time ever it required sidewalks for single and two family houses in our most dense urban centers. It required more sidewalks for commercial and multi-family developments, and made it harder for those developments to avoid building. And it expanded where the “in-lieu of sidewalks” payment had to be made. 

Thanks to this bill hundreds of new sidewalks have been built, stemming the tide of our sidewalk needs, and millions have been paid into the “in-lieu of sidewalks” fund, further stretching the $30 Million Metro has been spending each year on new sidewalks around the city. You can read all about the current requirements for sidewalks here.

Councilwoman Angie Henderson has filed, BL2019-1659 an update to the original sidewalk bill. It tweaks a few parts of the updated code and streamlines the waiver process. Overall Walk Bike Nashville is generally supportive of this bill, though somewhat concerned how it will play out in reality. Here's a quick overview of the bill and our thoughts.

This bill does three main things:

1. Creates a Formal Waiver Process with Specific Exceptions

Currently if a developer doesn’t want to build a sidewalk or pay in-lieu of, or wants to build a sidewalk that is different than the required dimensions they have to go to the Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA). This has resulted in an enormous number of cases, which is hard for neighbors to keep track of and has led to uneven application of the code. 

With this new waiver process there are a limited number of reasons to not build a sidewalk. If a developer requests a waiver, their appeal first goes through a streamlined process for staff review to determine if one of these unique exceptions applies. 

We mostly support this waiver process (along with the transparent process if a community wants to appeal). We think the waiver process will require appeals to meet specific, documented criteria. It will also dramatically overall reduce the number of cases that go to BZA, making it easier for neighborhood groups to comment on the cases that really matter. We have emphasized to Metro Planning and the bill sponsor that it is essential that the process is as transparent as possible and that there is still a public appeals process if a council member or neighborhood group disagrees with the waiver decision made by Metro staff. Metro staff has proposed and internal Sidewalk Waiver process (see here) to ensure that there are still opportunities for the public to comment on a waiver request, and support/oppose if necessary.

2. Caps In-Lieu Fees at 3% of Construction Costs

This bill caps the in-lieu of sidewalk construction payment at 3% of the value of the total construction project (original bill says 2% but we anticipate staff report will recommend 3%).

The in-lieu of payment is required when, due to location or surroundings, it doesn’t make sense to require the construction of a sidewalk. The payment is required based on the linear feet of frontage. See current requirement when this applies. These funds go into a sidewalk benefit zone fund, which the city then uses to build a different sidewalk within that zone. 

We understand why it could make sense to cap in-lieu of construction payments. It seems especially to make sense for a relatively affordable home with a lot of frontage, to avoid having required sidewalk payments so large they eclipse cost of construction.

That being said we are wary of capping a payment that was intended to help meet our enormous sidewalk deficit. We are interested in what impact this ends up having on the total amount generated by the in-lieu of construction payments, and whether it over-incentivizes payment in-lieu of, reducing the number of sidewalks built. We would like Metro Planning and Codes to track the impact of this change, and report back to the community in a year so that we can understand its impact.

3. Assessed Rather than Appraised Value

Redevelopment of a commercial property requires sidewalks depending on what percentage of the value of the property it represents. This update changes the standard to a percentage of the assessed value, rather than the appraised value. 

We support this change. 

This makes sense because assessed value is publicly documented and proportional to the cost of the development.