City attorney questions legality of Center Street sidewalk plan

East Center Street in downtown Fayetteville

Photo: Todd Gill, Flyer staff

Residents will have to wait a little longer before a sidewalk improvement project begins on East Center Street in downtown Fayetteville.

City transportation crews were expected to begin replacing the sidewalks this week, but a memo from City Attorney Kit Williams has put a halt on the project, sending the plans back to the Street Committee.

Officials had planned a basic sidewalk replacement project for the area earlier this year, but several downtown business owners asked that an alternative concept be considered to include wider sidewalk areas which would allow for possible streetside cafes and other amenities.

The Street Committee voted to adopt
this design, but without the bumpouts
on the north side of the street.

Original design

As a result, the Street Committee voted in late August to approve construction of three “bumpouts” which would extend the width of the sidewalks to about 16 feet in some areas on the south side of the street and completely renovate the 9-foot sidewalk on the north side of the street.

Williams, however, said legal concerns have him worried.

“I like outdoor seating in restaurants,” wrote Williams. “However, I question whether we can use public tax dollars to build outdoor seating for private restaurants.”

Williams said using tax money for material and to pay city employees to enlarge portions of the sidewalk for the use of private restaurants is “probably unconstitutional.”

He said the city might be able to lease parts of the sidewalks to restaurants if the businesses paid for the cost to widen them, but wrote that closing portions of city property to the public for private use would be diverting tax revenues from the purposes they were levied, which is to benefit the public.

“That is a classic definition of an illegal exaction,” wrote Williams.

Ward 2 Alderman Matthew Petty, a Street Committee member who sponsored the idea for an alternate design, said he disagreed with Williams and believes wider sidewalks would be a greater benefit to the public, with or without outdoor restaurant seating.

“We don’t even have a permit process in place yet for restaurants to take advantage of sidewalk space, so I think it’s premature to suggest we’re widening the sidewalks for specific private businesses,” said Petty on Tuesday.

“We may end up with sidewalk cafes one day, but we also might end up with bike racks, benches, or just a larger area for the public to gather or walk along,” he said.

Chris Brown, city engineer, said he has placed the project on the agenda for tonight’s (Sept. 11) Street Committee meeting.

Brown said Williams is expected to discuss his concerns with the group during the meeting, set for 5:30 p.m. in Fayetteville City Hall.