Sunday, September 21, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

Talking the talk when you can't walk the walk

It's hard to describe exactly what happened to the sidewalk along East Hewson Street, in Fishtown, but we'll say it as best we can: Someone's yard ate it. Seriously. If you're walking down the sidewalk of this residential block, you walk into a tall, black, wooden fence that extends out from a resident's yard. You have to step into the street to get around it. Meanwhile, the resident in question has a bigger yard, because the width of the sidewalk has been swallowed into it. Now, we'll be the first to admit that ownership of sidewalks is a confusing thing. You're responsible for maintaining the sidewalk that's outside your house, but, at the same time, it's not yours. You've got to share it with everyone. Block your sidewalk and you can get slapped with a violation. (Construction sites can temporarily block the sidewalk with a permit from Licenses and Inspections.) That's why, when one neighbor brought up the Hewson Street fence on Fishtown's Internet forum, many residents were dumbfounded. They wondered: How is that allowed?

Talking the talk when you can't walk the walk

Holly Otterbein

It's hard to describe exactly what happened to the sidewalk along East Hewson Street, in Fishtown, but we'll say it as best we can: Someone's yard ate it.

Seriously.

If you're walking down the sidewalk of this residential block, you walk into a tall, black, wooden fence that extends out from a resident's yard. You have to step into the street to get around it.

Meanwhile, the resident in question has a bigger yard, because the width of the sidewalk has been swallowed into it.

Now, we'll be the first to admit that ownership of sidewalks is a confusing thing. You're responsible for maintaining the sidewalk that's outside your house, but, at the same time, it's not yours. You've got to share it with everyone. Block your sidewalk and you can get slapped with a violation. (Construction sites can temporarily block the sidewalk with a permit from Licenses and Inspections.)

That's why, when one neighbor brought up the Hewson Street fence on Fishtown's Internet forum, many residents were dumbfounded. They wondered: How is that allowed?


One resident, Jill Betters, worried about elderly or wheelchair-bound residents who, upon approaching the fenced-off sidewalk, would be forced to walk in the street or cross it.

"I wouldn't want Fishtown to be perceived as a place that's hard to get around," she said.

Betters and her neighbors contacted the city for help, but they never got any answers. So we stepped in.

FENCED IN: We made the trek up to Fishtown to visit the disappearing sidewalk and talk to the property owners about the fence. We had a whole bunch of questions, including: Did you get approval to build this? Is the sidewalk still intact inside your yard?

But the property owners didn't really want to chat. The fence is legal, they told us, and that they had a permit. That was all that they'd say.

The only way you can permanently block your sidewalk is to get a permit approved by the Streets Department. So, we called the department to ask if the property owners indeed had a permit for the fence. Spokeswoman June Cantor said that there was no record of one.

In response to our call, the Streets Department inspected the property last week and issued a violation to the owners. The department ordered them to take the fence down, Cantor said. As of last week, the fence was still up, neighbors said, but we're hoping it will come down soon, so we're not going to print the owners' names. Yet.

Oh, and get this: The property was recently put up for sale. Descriptions on realty websites don't mention the annexed sidewalk, but do boast a "nice size yard"!

The property's realtor, Kathleen McGinley, told us that the fence was legal.

"There's no story," she said.

When we later told her that the city had issued a violation for the fence, she said that she couldn't legally disclose anything else about the property.

THE "NOT MY PROBLEM" CITY: But wait. Betters and her neighbors repeatedly reported the problem last month. Why didn't the Streets Department investigate the property until we called?

The answer, which is one we hear way too much, is that the problem kept getting incorrectly directed to the wrong department, in this case Licenses and Inspections.

The Streets Department initially told Betters to call Licenses and Inspections because Licenses and Inspections deals with permits for fences, Cantor said.

3-1-1 directed multiple complaints to Licenses and Inspections because it was a "potential zoning issue," said assistant managing director Sheryl Johnson.

When we called Licenses and Inspections spokeswoman Maura Kennedy and described the problem, she immediately said that it was a Streets Department issue. Licenses and Inspections handles "lot-line in," Kennedy said, and the Streets Department handles "lot-line out," which means sidewalks. Simple as that. But whoever dealt with the call for 3-1-1 and the Streets Department didn't know.

Now, we'll cut the city some slack here. After all, people don't annex sidewalks every day (we hope), so it's not the worst thing in the world that there was some misunderstanding about who should deal with this issue.

But we're still bothered by city agencies reverting to the "not my problem" mindset. Everyone points to a different agency and forgets about the problem, and no one checks back to make sure that the problem got handled.

Meanwhile, as everyone points fingers, a yard is devouring an innocent sidewalk. And no one is there to protect it.

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Every year, city government spends slightly more than $4 billion. Where does all that money come from? More importantly, where does it go? Are we getting the most bang for our tax buck? “It's Our Money” is a joint project between Philadelphia Daily News and WHYY, funded by the William Penn Foundation, designed to answer these questions.

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Holly Otterbein:
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