Post #1133: Robinson sidewalk bequest, odder and odder.

Posted on May 3, 2021


If you want the background, look at Post #532, Post #1056, Post #1096, and Post #1120.

Briefly, here’s the story up to now:  A former Town Council member left $7M (now $9M) in her will for use in constructing sidewalks in Vienna.  There’s a five-year time limit, starting more than two years ago.  The executor of that will imposed a limitation — not mentioned anywhere in the will itself — that the money could only be spent literally for the sidewalk, not anything else that you need to build a sidewalk.  No “curb and gutter”.   The Town’s staff then put a lot of effort into finding the streets where it already had curb and gutter in place, and in effect chose streets for sidewalks based on what concrete had been poured a half-century ago, instead of some objective measure of need.  And with that restriction, by my simple calculation, it was obvious that the Town wasn’t even going to be able to spend the interest that trust money would earn in five years, let alone spend the principal on new sidewalks.

In the last Town Council meeting, if you look at the details, turns out, they were just kidding about not paying for curb and gutter.  Hence the image above.  Of the first five projects for which the Town has approved construction funding under this bequest, and that the Robinson estate trustee has agreed to, sure looks like the trust is paying for curb and gutter for four of them.

The Town voted to approve the construction of those five projects without so much as a comment on the flip-flop.  And, apparently, with no change in their planning, despite drawing up those plans based on streets with existing curb and gutter.

In Vienna, decisions just kind of wander around until they stop.  And it looks like this is where this one has stopped.  It is what it is, and it’s not even all that unusual, in this context.  Looking on the bright side, after more than two years, they did manage to get some of the money allocated before the upcoming Town election.

My only due diligence on this, now, is to figure out what happened to the first three streets that the Town approved more than a year ago (Post #1056).  People forget about those.  They no longer appear on any of the documents, presumably because they’re a done deal.  And yet, I can’t seem to find where the Town did a similar funding approval for their construction.  (They approved only the money to pay for the engineering work that must be done prior to construction.)  The key question is whether the Town will approve the funding, for the first three, in time to get them built within the five-year window.  Or does the Town Council think they already did that?

A silent flip-flop?

In the 4/26/2021 Town Council meeting, Town Council held a public hearing to get input from the citizens on this Robinson sidewalk initiative.  I didn’t watch that, but apparently they got an earful, and not in a good way. You can find background materials and video of the meeting on this Town of Vienna web page on Granicus.

Then, late in the same meeting, the Town approved contracts to begin building those sidewalks.  To be paid for by that trust.  Presumably, those are just the first contracts, so that, again presumably, citizens weren’t completely wasting their time by providing input.

I only looked at the very brief video section on the contracts for the new sidewalks.  Town Council had no substantive discussion, followed by unanimous approval.  That video provided no information about the sidewalks, but it did cast some light on the prior public hearing.  Presumably that went less-than-smoothly, as  Councilman Springsteen called for banning one citizen from further meetings based on cursing at a Town employee.

I did read the materials accompanying the meeting, such as they are.  And that left me shaking my head, saying, well, that’s different.  Everything that had been said about this so far, and was supposedly set in stone, maybe isn’t.    (Flip-flops, get it?)

Up to now, the word had been that projects could only be built where there was existing curb and gutter.  The executor’s interpretation was that when Maud Robinson said “sidewalk”, by golly, she meant literally the flat thing you walk on, and absolutely nothing else that you need in order to build a sidewalk.  E.g., the trust would not pay for the associated curb and gutter.

You can see that documented in several prior posts here, with references to the relevant Town Council meetings, listed above.  You can review the video of the relevant Town Council meetings to see that the Mayor herself said this — no curb or gutter.

This narrow interpretation of Maud Robinson’s intent always seemed ridiculous on its face.  All it took was a little arithmetic to show that, at best, with that restriction, the Town would be able to spend a few pennies on the dollar of the bequest.  Why would anyone leave a large chunk of money for a defined purpose, while simultaneously preventing any material portion of it from being used for that purpose?

One Town Council candidate, Dave Patariu, said that the Town’s best strategy was to take this to court.  Sue the estate, and have a judge decide what the proper interpretation of the language of the will was.  Patariu is a lawyer, he had looked up some case law first, and in his initial opinion, the wording of the will clearly allowed payment for anything necessary to build sidewalks.  The language called for “the construction of sidewalks”.  And he was reasonably confident that the Town could get a judge to rule that way.  That would have allowed the Town to use a vastly higher fraction of the available funds, and to target the funds to roads with the greatest demonstrated need for a sidewalk, instead of roads that just happened to have curb-and-gutter put in place half a century ago.

It now appears that the trustee for the Robinson estate was just kidding.  The Robinson estate is now paying for all the other stuff too.  Including curb and gutter, and so on.  In some cases.

Minor possible caveat:  There may be some gotcha here.  Maybe the Town is going to add in some of its own funds.  But a) there’s no mention of that, b) the bill of materials listed by the Town specifically says curb and gutter, including in the cost of the contract, to be paid by the Robinson estate, and c) at the prices being paid per foot, on the major pieces of sidewalk, these contracts had better include more than just the flat concrete sidewalk ribbon.  In short, everything I can see publicly says that the Robinson trust is, in fact, paying for curb and gutter for four out of these five projects.

Anyway, that’s what you learn if you read the writeup of the current contracts, on this web page.  So, apparently, it wasn’t Maud Robinson’s intention to pay only for sidewalk?  Or maybe the executor has now decided to ignore Maud Robinson’s intention?  Or something.

There is, of course, no explanation or rationale for the change.  And, as is customary in Town of Vienna, where decisions just seems to wander around until they stop, now that the trust clearly will pay for some curb and gutter, there’s no rethinking of where the sidewalks will go.  So, in order, a) they picked a set of streets to look at, based on the curb-and-gutter restriction, then b) that restriction is dropped, and now c) they’re still focused on that initial list of streets, plus maybe some others chosen by some ill-defined and non-public process?

However you want to spin it, the executor has changed her mind.  To some degree.  Only on certain streets.  Drawn from a list of candidate streets that’s not, as far as I know, public.  Or even, apparently, available to Town Council members.

Sounds about right.  It’s the sort of transparent and rational decision-making that I have noted in the past from the Town of Vienna.

The five new projects

This is just a summary of what’s on the Town webpage for this part of the Town Council meeting, along with a little sleuthing via Google Street View.

First, there’s about $72K to be spent on three small pieces of sidewalk.  All of them appear to have been chosen because they already had curb and gutter.  Yet curb and gutter is listed as a cost for them, plausibly because the existing concrete had deteriorated.  And so we have this odd set of fill-in sidewalks where the choice of sidewalk was dictated by the trustee’s absolute unwillingness to pay for curb and gutter.  But the project now includes payment for curb and gutter.

124 Courthouse Road SW.  (Ironically, this is where the Robinson house was.  The Town owns that now.)  That’s ~$33K in spending.  The missing sidewalk is actually along the back of the property, where Cottage Street dead-ends at the shopping center.  It’s about 100′ of sidewalk, based on the materials list below.  That site has curb and gutter, and the other side of the road has a sidewalk.

503 Ware Street SW (~$17K).  This is right across from Meadow Lane park.  As shown, there’s a sidewalk on the other side of the street, and this appears to have curb and gutter (although, per description below, some of the cost cited by the Town is for curb and gutter.)  This is also about 100′ of sidewalk, based on the material list below.

1002 Hillcrest Drive SW (~$22K).  This is about a 200′ long stretch, based on the materials bill below.  It has curb and guttter, but the Town lists curb and gutter as a cost.  There’s a sidewalk on the other side of the street.

Per the Town, the bill of materials reads like this:

The Courthouse Road project includes approximately 58 square yards of concrete sidewalk, 12 square yards of concrete driveway entrance, and 80 cubic yards of excavation.  The Ware Street SW project includes 56 square yards of concrete sidewalk, 40 feet of concrete curb and gutter, and 48 cubic yards of excavation.  The Hillcrest Drive project includes 123 square feet of concrete sidewalk, 44 feet of concrete curb and gutter, and 35 cubic yards of excavation.   Additionally, all three of these projects have other miscellaneous and related items.

You can translate from square yards of concrete sidewalk to linear feet of 5′ ribbon sidewalk because 1 square yard is 1.8 feet of standard 5′ sidewalk.

Then there’s about $250K to be spent on two large projects. 

Pleasant Street SW – Courthouse Road to Maple Avenue (~$125K).  This is a several-hundred-foot stretch of road with sidewalk on one side, and no sidewalk on the other.  Only a small segment of this has curb and gutter.  I make the entire stretch to be about 500′ long, from Google maps, which roughly matches the bill of materials listed by the Town.  The Town’s bill of materials does not specifically say curb and gutter (it leaves that vague), but at an estimated $250 per foot, given the fact that there’s clearly no curb and gutter there now, it’s a pretty good guess that the overall cost includes curb and gutter.

Cabin Road SE – Branch Road to Glyndon Street (~$120K).  It’s not clear what the Town is proposing here.  There’s no sidewalk on either side.  The Branch street end had curb and gutter, the Glyndon Street end (picured) does not.  The entire stretch is just over 800′ long and pretty much dead flat.  Plausibly, the $120K pays for sidewalk on both sides, plus the required curb and gutter at the Gylndon end of the road.

But that last one is just a guess, because the cost of sidewalks can vary widely, depending on the circumstances.  See Post #521.

The mysterious sidewalk master list.

I happen to know a street in Vienna that’s arguably quite dangerous for pedestrians.  And that gets a steady stream of pedestrian traffic.  It’s the one I walk on, all the time — Glen Avenue.  Narrow road, no sidewalk, and not even any place to walk off the roadway, around the blind hairpin turn.

And, oddly enough, purely by chance, I happen to know that Glen Avenue has a high rating in the Town’s overall master sidewalk list.  Presumably for safety issues.  But I only know that because, almost randomly, a subset of that list was published with prior Town of Vienna discussion of sidewalks to be funded by this trust.  This list.

Sidewalk Rating System Worksheet (Robinson Trust Only)

I can’t even now find the Town resource I downloaded that from in the first place.  But, based on the description, it’s an extract of a larger list of sidewalks, all rated for priority.

My points are these.  Somewhere, there is some rational ranking of places in Town that need sidewalks.  The Town was consulting that, as it went about this process.  But in the end, the dictate of “no payment for curb or gutter” trumped all other considerations.  And yet, the first funded set of projects violates that.  As a logical person, I just have a hard time keeping track of what the process is.

But what about Plum Street?

This part is just a marker.  The Town approved sidewalks on Plum Street and two other streets more than a year ago.  They approved funds for the engineering, but not for the construction.   I just wonder of they’ve forgotten that they did that, or whether I’ve managed to miss the session where they funded them from the Robinson trust.  I’ll keep looking.  This is just a marker, or maybe a reminder, that these aren’t the first projects approved under the umbrella of the Robinson trust.  They approved three more than a year ago.  I just can’t find any evidence that those three have gone forward.  And with the clock ticking, that’s a little worrisome.