Sidewalk violations soar in Marco Island amid code vigilante
Sidewalk code violations are on the rise in Marco Island, according to the Marco Island Police Department.
The Code Enforcement division of MIPD found 246 right-of-way sidewalk code violations between Jan. 1 and July 25 of this year, 146 more violations than in all of 2018.
A right-of-way sidewalk code violation means the sidewalk is in some kind of disrepair or that the right-of-way is hindered or blocked. On Marco Island, most homeowners are responsible for the maintenance of the sidewalk immediately in front of their property, according to the city's Code of Ordinances.
A man on a mission
The rise in sidewalk code violations is primarily due to people who take it upon themselves to report possible violations to Code Enforcement, according to Captain David Baer of MIPD.
Rony Joel, a former director of Public Works and general manager of the Water and Sewer Department, led a group of residents in reporting close to 500 possible sidewalk code violations.
In an email to the Marco Eagle, Joel said that it all started when he was training for a hike last year.
"To train for this walk, I started walking daily on Marco Island sidewalks," Joel wrote. "In doing so, I met a few people that love to walk. As we got to know each other, they told me that there are many sidewalks that are damaged."
The former city employee said he suggested they report sidewalk problems to the city, but nobody wanted to do it.
"None were willing to do so as they were concerned that their name would be made public and they were afraid for repercussions from homeowners," Joel wrote. "I told them that if they would provide me the locations, I would provide them to the city."
In case you missed it: Have you received a complaint about your sidewalk? It may be from an ex-Marco city employee
Over a three month period during the second half of 2018, a group of eight walked the majority of sidewalks on Marco Island and provided Joel the locations of potential sidewalk violations, according to Joel.
"An initial list was provided (to) the city and the feedback I received was that about 75% of the identified properties were in fact code violations," Joel wrote. "My goal (is) to keep our community safe and when we observe an unsafe condition, report it to the appropriate authority."
Joel said he hasn't reported potential sidewalk violations since late last year, and the list he gave the city was a "one-time effort."
Almost half of reported violations are unfounded
Code Enforcement does not keep track of who initially reports these violations, but information provided by MIPD suggests many of the violations reported by untrained individuals end up being unfounded.
Between Jan. 1 and July 25 of this year, Code Enforcement determined that approximately 43% of reported violations were unfounded. Only violations that are determined to be founded result in a code violation notice.
It's virtually impossible that Code Enforcement employees report a code violation that is later deemed unfounded, according to Baer, which means that the 187 unfounded violations from last year were likely reported by people without Code Enforcement training.
"Those folks are not educated in the nuances of sidewalks," Baer said. "Anyone can report code violations and everyone does. We welcome the information that people give us."
Brett J. Reynolds, an Air Force veteran, received a Code Enforcement violation notice about his sidewalk last September. Like hundreds of other Marco Islanders, his sidewalk was initially reported by Joel, according to MIPD records.
Code Enforcement then issued a violation notice ordering Reynolds to replace a section of his sidewalk that was made with asphalt instead of concrete, according to the violation notice provided by Reynolds.
Reynolds, who owns an adjoining empty lot next to his home, spent more than $25,000 replacing the sidewalk and other related projects, according to an estimate and pay stubs he provided the Eagle.
"If it wasn't for (Joel), the city wouldn't have touch me," he said.
Baer said he's aware that people are complaining about the rise of sidewalk code violations.
"We get why people are frustrated about that," he said. "(But) on the other hand, people moved to Marco Island because it is a safe community where people can bike and walk on sidewalks."
Marco resident: 'This makes me not trust the city'
Reynolds said that after replacing his sidewalk in January, Water and Sewer contractors demolished it this summer to replace underground pipes as part of the $9 million Marco Shores Alternative Water and Sewer Improvements Project.
The project's contract was signed by interim city manager Guillermo Polanco in July 2018, two months before Reynolds received the code violation notice.
Reynolds, a Marco Island resident since 1969, said the city didn't warn him about the pipe replacement project and that his money went "down the drain."
"They could have told me," he said. "I would like my money back, but that's not going to happen. This makes me not trust the city."
The city is not considering reimbursing Reynolds, according to Baer.
Jeff Gauer, another Sixth Avenue resident, said he had a similar experience.
Gauer said he received a sidewalk code violation notice last November ordering him to replace three sidewalk slabs. After paying the city for a permit and replacing the slabs in February, the Water and Sewer contractor demolished his sidewalk in June, according to Gauer.
Gauer said the city didn't notify him that the new sidewalk was going to be demolished.
"They didn't tell us about that," he said. "The city had to know it had a contract to replace the sewer lines well before they made us replace the sidewalk."
Baer said he agrees that it's important to coordinate projects internally,
"Collaboration will significantly reduce the chance for duplication of effort, as well as disappointed citizens," he wrote in an email to the Eagle.
"There will, of course, be exceptions due to unique circumstances, or based on time. There may be conditions in which the city has not planned a project that far in advance – again we hope this is an exception. Communication is the key to success in the future."
As of last Friday, sections of Reynolds and Gauer's sidewalks were still incomplete, creating up to a 3-inch drop between the sidewalk and the gravel.
"That's dangerous out there," Gauer said. "They've left me hanging out to dry since June."
On Monday, several days after the Eagle asked the city about the status of the sidewalks on Sixth Avenue, the contractor started pouring cement to complete the sidewalk.
The Marco Shores Alternative Water and Sewer Improvements Project started in December and is set to be completed by January 2020, according to city inspector Thomas Valiante.