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No More Sidewalks To Nowhere: Houston Developers Can Now Pay A Fee To Get Out Of Them

Developers will no longer be required to build new sidewalks after the Houston City Council passed an ordinance Wednesday establishing an alternative to help fund other new sidewalk construction.


The ordinance establishes a fee in lieu of sidewalk construction for qualifying developers and property owners. The fee will go into a fund, expected to generate about $1.7M annually, that will pay for sidewalk construction elsewhere in Houston.

“There are plenty of places where sidewalks need to be built,” Mayor Sylvester Turner said at Wednesday’s council meeting. “Sidewalks should be built where there is development occurring because we have people with disabilities who need the sidewalks.” 

Previous standards required a 4-foot street buffer and sidewalks 8 feet wide in the Central Business District, 6 feet wide on major thoroughfares and 5 feet wide on local streets.

There are some neighborhoods in the city that don't and likely won't ever have sidewalks, council members said. Under a sidewalk ordinance that went into effect in October 2020, applicants could only construct a required sidewalk — even if it didn't connect to any other sidewalks — or submit an application for a modification of the sidewalk standard requirements, unless they met certain exemptions.

The new ordinance adds the third option of paying a fee in place of sidewalk construction that will be split so that 70% of it goes to building sidewalks in the area of the development paying the fee, with the remaining 30% going toward building sidewalks anywhere in the city.

The fee will be $12 per SF, less than half of Houston’s $30-per-SF sidewalk construction cost. That fee would total $3K for a typical single-family home with a 50-foot-wide lot and $7,200 for a nonresidential property with lot frontage of 100 feet, according to city documents.

Most of the discussion at Wednesday’s council meeting centered around whether the fund could pay for repairs to existing sidewalks rather than just new construction. District I Council Member Robert Gallegos said he is using his district service funds for sidewalk repairs but would rather use them in other ways, like to enhance parks.

Turner said he would rather keep this ordinance simple but would support a budgetary amendment for sidewalk repairs this year. City legal staff told the council the fee is akin to an impact fee to pay for new development, but opening the ordinance up to repairs could lead to legal challenges asserting the fee is a compensable taking. 

District J Council Member Edward Pollard didn’t like the idea of a fee at all, saying it could be perceived as bad governance to force developers to either build "a sidewalk to nowhere" or pay a fee.

At-Large Position 4 Council Member Letitia Plummer said the fee helps create equity in the city by contributing to neighborhoods that can’t afford sidewalks.

David Fields, chief transportation planner for the Houston Planning and Development Department, told the Houston Chronicle the objective is a citywide pedestrian network to “help the city grow sustainably and responsibly.”

“The in-lieu fee is one additional option for how we get there,” he said.