That’s what Highland Park has paid so far to assert its right to fine property owners whose sidewalks have fallen into disrepair. Enforcement efforts, which began last year, stalled after residents brought a legal challenge to the law. Council amended the law, but opted to delay further enforcement until after the cold weather had passed and sunny days had returned.
Of that $57,000 on the meter, about four-fifths has been spent on the services of Highland Park’s municipal attorney Ed Schmierer, whose firm has billed the borough $45,294.31. But the court ordered the borough to pay another $12,000 to local attorney Mark Oshinskie, who last summer successfully sued to halt the borough’s sidewalk-repair enforcement efforts.
And now with spring finally about to arrive, the question must be asked: Will the meter start running again?
The answer to that question is still up in the air. A commission appointed to look at sidewalk-related issues isn’t due to make its recommendations until April.
“Every municipality does things differently,” said Borough Councilman Philip George, who has been heading the commission. “I’ve been calling around and touching bases with some of the other municipalities in the county and outside the county.”
Not every municipality handles sidewalk repairs the same way. In Princeton, where the pedestrian-friendly downtown and surrounding neighborhoods are about the same size as Highland Park, municipal officials are considering adopting an ordinance that would have the municipality be responsible for 100 percent of new sidewalk construction, as well as repairs of existing sidewalks. Individual property owners would be off the hook, if Princeton Council members approve such a strategy.
“It always has been an option for municipalities to do it,” said Borough Attorney Ed Schmierer, although he adds that state statute allows governing bodies the latitude to find the solution that works best for their municipalities.
About 1,100 residents last year ran afoul of the borough’s enforcement efforts. Many residents availing themselves of a program, now expired, that allowed them to pay for the repairs interest-free over a five-year period. Enforcement halted when Mr. Oshinskie filed his suit. State Superior Court Judge Travis Frances ordered the borough to rewrite its ordinance to reflect the code requirements. By the time the new ordinance had passed, the weather had cooled too much for cement work.
So, with warmer weather arriving, how do things look for property owners with uneven sidewalks? Mr. George stressed in a conversation on Wednesday that the sidewalk commission has yet to reach a verdict and make a recommendation to the Borough Council about how to proceed. But he also noted that whatever one may think of the enforcement, the position the borough has taken is fairly normal.
“A lot of the other municipalities are not doing it the way Princeton is considering – they do their sidewalk repairs the way Highland Park is doing it.”
Given the opposition to enforcement efforts last summer and the confidence Mr. Oshinskie has in his case, one thing is clear. If enforcement efforts do resume, that legal fees meter is going to start running again.