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Neighbors seek sidewalks for sake of children

All Diana Shepard and her neighbors really want is a sidewalk on Highview Drive.

"Our kids have to either walk in the street or in the grass to get to school," Shepard said. "I've got a lot of concerned parents in here."

Her own children aren't school age yet, but as a member of the neighborhood homeowners association board, Shephard has taken on the sidewalk as a personal crusade. Her hopes were raised recently when county work crews showed up and started laying sidewalk along Highview.

There's just one problem: It stops right where the neighborhood begins "and that doesn't help our kids at all."

Shepard and her neighbors near Brandon are caught in a bureaucratic quagmire that stretches back to the mid-1980s. Subdivisions were sprouting like weeds back then, and county inspectors couldn't keep up with the work. The result: 189 subdivisions never got the sidewalks county regulations required, records show.

County officials are trying to sort through the confusion, but that could take months.

A series of inspections done in the summer of 1989 found 70 miles of unbuilt sidewalk.

Letters were sent to developers asking them to finish the work they were supposed to have done, but most went unanswered, officials said.

Three years later, inspectors are returning to those subdivisions to find out what has happened since. Trouble is, county officials say they still don't have a solid estimate of how many sidewalks haven't been built.

A recent spot check found more sidewalks in place than first believed, said James Bourey, senior assistant county administrator.

But there may be little the county can do to force developers to build those left unbuilt.

The statute of limitations for the county to take civil action has passed for any sidewalks left unbuilt before 1987, County Attorney Emmy Acton said. The bonds the developers put up as insurance also have expired. Some developers may not be in business anymore.

Which means the taxpayers will get stuck with the bill.

Just how large a bill that will be won't be known until inspectors finish their next round of reports.

In fact, the taxpayers may have been paying the tab already, Bourey said. Some of those missing sidewalks may well have wound up on the county's list of public works projects, he said.

One of those missing sidewalks may or may not be along Highview. County officials admit they simply don't know, and the subdivision records that ought to shed some light on the matter are confusing and contradictory.

Some of the bonds county officials say expire before the sidewalks were built appear to actually have been retired by the County Commission after assurances from county staff members that the sidewalks had been built. Inspection reports, however, show some of the sidewalks were not built.

One subdivision that was supposed to have a mile and a half of sidewalks didn't have any. "This subdivision has no existing sidewalks; none!" says a June 20, 1990, inspection report.

Some developers appear to have been given waivers of the sidewalk regulations, but it's unclear from the files whether those were included in the list of unbuilt walkways.

The files include dozens of letters to developers asking them to meet their sidewalk obligations, but most appear to have gone unanswered.

County Administrator Fred Karl has told his staff to get to the bottom of it. He wants to know who let the bonds expire, whether any developers are still liable and how much it will cost to build missing sidewalks.

Diana Shepard understands the county's problem, but she just wants a sidewalk for the children. "We were told when we bought the house that there would be sidewalks all around," Shepard said. "The developer was supposed to have done it a long time ago."

The developer disagrees.

"We've built all the sidewalks out there that were supposed to be built," said Hi Sierra, vice president of Devco Development Corp., which developed Lakeview Village, where Shephard and her neighbors live.

Sierra said Devco even spent $10,000 recently for a sidewalk around a county park in the development. Company officials didn't think they were legally obligated to do so, he said.

"The only one we look to is the county," Sierra said. "If we're legally obligated to build them, I suppose we'll build them."