Town, WYDOT advance encroachment discussions

by nathan oster

While there remains disagreement over the need for a proposed ordinance on sidewalk encroachments, business owners and highway department officials appeared to find common ground Monday on which governing body they want policing downtown sidewalks.

The Town of Greybull, and not the Wyoming Department of Transportation, will be in a better position to deal with business owners, a point conceded even by Ron Huff, who was representing WYDOT at the meeting.

“Yeah, we are big, bad WYDOT … but we want to try to work with the town,” said Huff, toward the end of Monday’s discussion. “We don’t want to have to deal with the businesses in Greybull (on this issue).  We’d prefer to have the town talk with them.  They have  a better rapport, a better feeling.”

WYDOT initiated the sidewalk encroachment conversation late in 2010.  Highway department officials stated at the time that their charge is to effectively and safely manage the sidewalk system along U.S. Highways 14-16-20and that objects placed on the sidewalk — things like sandwich boards, merchandise, the Probst Western Store horse, for examble — were impeding or posing hazards to pedestrians.

Since that time, WYDOT, with help from the town, have been guiding downtown business owners into compliance.  Huff stated Monday night that Greybull business owners have been cooperative. As an example, he said Probst Western Store has since obtained permit to place its horse on the sidewalk, starting in the spring.

Not everyone likes the proposed ordinance, or the memorandum of understanding between WYDOT and the town that would govern sidewalk encroachments. The council passed the ordinance on first reading in November, but members made it clear Monday night that they only did so to open the discussion up to public input.

By the end of Monday night’s conversation, which was attended by approximately one dozen local business owners, the council had agreed to table second reading of the ordinance until the January meeting, when a new council will be seated.

Before that, though, the council heard from not only Huff, but also a couple of business owners.

Julie Owens, owner of Big Horn Quilts and president of the Greybull Area Chamber of Commerce, called the ordinance “totally unnecessary” and said, “No merchant in his right mind will limit accessibility to pedestrians.”

Owens said WYDOT is “vastly exaggerating” the ADA requirements.  Citing information she found online, Owens said the ADA requirement for sidewalks is only a 3-foot continuous path, with a place wide enough for two wheelchairs to meet every 200 feet.

“The highway department wants Greybull to be a stretch of boring concrete bristling with traffic signs,” said Owens. “They want us to be a generic town with a speed limit to annoy the traveling public and nothing remotely interesting to distract drivers.  They want all the businesses that have managed to stay open to look as boring as the many that have closed.”

Owens said things like the Probst horse, the airplanes on top of the hill, the flowers at the Greybull Motel and the Historic Hotel Greybull give Greybull a charm that is appealing to visitors.

She said she couldn’t understand why WYDOT might want to negatively impact businesses such as Dis ‘n Dat, where owner Jay Hightower faithfully displays items on the sidewalk each day, or Edward Mitchell, who does the same at Moonstar Trading Co. on North Sixth Street.

Owens called upon the council to represent “the townspeople,” not WYDOT, to not cave in to WYDOT’s “unreasonable demands,” and to trust merchants to keep the sidewalks clear enough for pedestrians.

Rodney Ross, a former councilmember, also spoke against the proposed ordinance, railed against the signs that WYDOT has installed in the downtown as well as their placement, saying, “Right now, they are the impediment” for pedestrians.

Huff defended WYDOT, saying the intent is not to harm businesses, but rather to better define what is and isn’t allowed on sidewalks running alongside highways.

“What we have been doing is working with the town to allow encroachments,” he said. “Right now, policies don’t allow them. So technically, all of the business owners, if they want to encroach in the right of way, should be coming to WYDOT and applying for a permit for the encroachment.”

Huff said the MOU was developed through as series of negotiating sessions with town officials, and that if approved, it would give businesses the power to encroach within 3 feet of their  building without any paperwork being filed.

“We’re trying to be more business proactive than restrictive,” he said.

Councilor Bob McGuire said it’s essentially “a boundary line issue” and that WYDOT has the right to set the rules, since it owns the sidewalks.  “In this case, the state owns the land in question within the town. And because of that … if we don’t enter into an operating agreement, then (business owners) would have to individually apply to the state to use their land.”

McGuire said the ordinance would provide business owners “a collective OK” to have the encroachments, as long as they are in compliance, and that it would put the responsibility on the town, not WYDOT, to police the streets.

“I’d have the town making decision than WYDOT,” said Myles Foley, owner of the  Historic Hotel Greybull, and a council member-elect.  “WYDOT has taken my signs (in the past). They were rude. Extremely rude.”

Mitchell challenged WYDOT, saying that if they owned the sidewalks, they should be responsible for the maintenance of them.  Mitchell said he maintains the sidewalk in front of his business, and Foley said he does the same at the hotel.

Houk countered, however, that the town receives money from WYDOT to maintain the sidewalks, so in effect, it is the town’s responsibility.  Mitchell said the town hasn’t been doing a very good job, then, noting the rare sight of the street sweeper in front of his business in the summer and fall.

McGuire said the only advantage to the ordinance is that the council, and not WYDOT, would be able to work with business owners who aren’t in compliance or who have questions about the rules.

The discussion also touched on sandwich board that advertise off premises business ventures.  Examples would be signage for the Dollar Store or The Shack, neither of which are on the state highway system.

Huff downplayed the urgency of giving the ordinance a second reading, saying that business owners have done a good job complying with WYDOT’s wishes regarding encroachments.  He said the MOU, and not the ordinance, should be the subject of talks in the coming months.

“What’s going on now has been working,” said Huff. “I think we got the word out in the fall of 2010 … and people have complied with that. So I don’t see this as being a big Issue that needs to be done today.  But I’d rather see the town address the MOU, so we can get an agreement there.”