TAMPA — Michael Ysidro didn't want a sidewalk in front of his new home in Historic Seminole Heights. There are no sidewalks for miles, he said, and he wouldn't use it.
But a city ordinance requires sidewalks for all new construction. So Ysidro, 48, planned to cut down a laurel oak in the path and pay a contractor $1,400 to build one.
Like many other homeowners with trees, ditches or walls blocking the path of walkways, Ysidro found it wasn't that simple. And in the end, he was forced to pay $7,700 toward a sidewalk — for someone else.
Now, at least one City Council member is questioning the fairness of Tampa's law, while others say the city's drive to become "walkable" needs as many sidewalks as it can get.
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The city's sidewalk ordinance came on the books in the 1990s, aimed at making Tampa more pedestrian friendly. It applies to new residential construction and projects that add more than 50 percent to a house.
It also included a loophole for instances where sidewalks weren't feasible or for those who just didn't want them.
But in 2003, South Tampa residents, concerned about rapid growth without infrastructure, pushed the City Council to cut out waivers, said Jan Washington, the city's sidewalks and street lights program manager.
Now, if you can't build a sidewalk, you pay into a trust fund to build them elsewhere, equal in length to your property's road front.
The fund rate is $43 per linear foot, which is the average cost of sidewalk construction. Washington said she expects the rate to be lowered in the future.
Currently, there's about $47,000 in the account, with one project pending on Sevilla Street between Manhattan and Lois avenues in Interbay.
Funds are spent annually to build sidewalks in the neighborhoods where they are collected, often including projects near schools, parks and bus stops.
In past years, officials used the money to pave a connection near Palma Ceia Little League field along Wallcraft from MacDill to Himes avenues and on busy Habana Avenue from Kennedy Boulevard to Cypress Street.
But every month several callers complain about the ordinance, Washington said.
She hears again and again: "We pay and don't get anything."
Out of every 10 houses built, three owners don't want sidewalks, she said.
She tells them they're funding their future.
"Twenty percent of Americans will be unable to drive at some point in their lives," she said. "A sidewalk is freedom."
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Gina Flynn-Carmack says her new sidewalk, with its moon-shaped curve around a laurel oak, gets plenty of traffic, even though it's the only one on her block. Teens use it on their way to Plant High School two blocks over, and a little dog named Muffin strolls it daily.
It cost her $600 and months of negotiating with the city for a width exception after she expanded her house recently.
Because of the tree, Flynn-Carmack, a teacher, was told she would have had to pay $3,500 into the fund. Her contractor didn't mention the sidewalk code to her when she opted to expand her home, and the payment would have been a hardship.
Flynn-Carmack decided she wanted a sidewalk for her money. She took her request to the City Council last summer and won approval for a sidewalk that is narrower where it curves around her tree.
Ysidro, of Historic Seminole Heights, was not so lucky. He says a city worker came out and told him he could cut down his laurel oak. Then another told him he couldn't. After five months, he wrote the city a check.
He paid $6,300 more than his contractor's quote for the sidewalk, which depleted his construction loan. He had to forgo a fence and shrubs.
Instead he says, "I have a $7,000 tree out front."
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Council member Charlie Miranda wants to propose an amendment to the code, after getting more input from community members.
In West Tampa he hears from many who can't build because of ditches. Miranda says that for one Seminole Heights landowner a sidewalk dead ends into a brick wall.
"Who's going to use that?" Miranda said. "Tampa has lots of sidewalks to nowhere."
Instead of paying into a sidewalk fund, Miranda wants to let homeowners use their money for something to their benefit, such as a solar water heater.
But council member John Dingfelder says more sidewalks will make Tampa safer.
"We do have one of the highest pedestrian fatality rates in the nation," he said.
Rather than do away with the fund, he suggests a cap on the fee homeowners would pay. He also wants the city to better notify residents about the ordinance. Often people don't find out about it until they complete their construction and, sometimes, have no money left.
Like Dingfelder, others tout the usefulness of sidewalks.
They add a sense of community to neighborhoods, said real estate agent Ed Gunning. "It's a big selling point, especially for those kids or pets."
Elisabeth Parker can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3431.