Williston may roll out new rules governing bike path

By Tom Gresham
Observer staff

As the network of bike paths and sidewalks in Williston continues to expand, the Selectboard appears poised to approve an ordinance that would regulate the activities on them.

The Selectboard will hold a public hearing on a proposed sidewalk and bike path ordinance at 7:30 p.m. on Monday. Various drafts of the ordinance have already been reviewed by the Selectboard in recent months and survived the readings with only minor alterations.

The three-page ordinance includes penalties for those who violate any of the provisions. Fines range from $25 to $125.

Williston would follow municipalities like South Burlington in passing an ordinance governing bike and walking paths. Other communities, like Burlington, do not have an ordinance. Joanne Putzier of the Burlington Parks and Recreation Department said the city has posted rules for its bike paths, but not a formal ordinance.

Some users of the Williston’s sidewalks and bike paths sounded uneasy at the prospect of regulations.

David Bauer, who was preparing to go for a bike ride with his son, Jacob, and daughter, Kristin, on Monday afternoon, said he had never seen any safety problems on the path and believed an ordinance was unnecessary.

“It doesn’t seem like regulations is the way to go,” Bauer said. “I’d rather they left it up to people’s sense of individual responsibility. If they’ve had problems with people not being safe, then I’m not opposed to it. If they’re proactively looking to make some rules, then I’d have to say no.”

Steve Knowlden, an in-line skater who was using the bike path Monday, said the disparate users appeared to coexist peacefully and seamlessly in Williston. Knowlden said if Burlington did not have an ordinance for its bike path, he did not see a reason that Williston should.

“To me, it seems as though it would open up a can of worms,” Knowlden said. “If it’s not broken, don’t fix it. It’s working fine the way it is now.”

Town Manager Rick McGuire said complaints about inappropriate behavior on the town’s sidewalks and bike paths have been scarce in recent years. However, McGuire said the town decided it had a legal need to enact a municipal ordinance for the paths.

McGuire said the ordinance could provide peace of mind for recalcitrant property owners worried about granting rights-of-way to the town for future bike path construction. McGuire said property owners often express concerns about their legal liability.

In a November letter to McGuire and Public Works Director Neil Boyden, attorney Joe Fallon said property owners have limited liability for those using paths if the use is allowed by state law or a municipal ordinance. Fallon recommended the town implement an ordinance.

“The main thing is to protect the property owner from any liability,” McGuire said. “That’s the goal with this.”

McGuire said town staff and the Selectboard did not want to create an ordinance that imposed onerous restrictions on bike path and sidewalk users.

“We tried to add something without getting too carried away with regulations,” McGuire said. “It’s not easy to enforce and we really haven’t had many problems.”

The ordinance includes provisions that give pedestrians the right of way on the paths, ban motorized vehicles and urge users to “travel only at such speeds and in such a manner as is safe under the circumstances.”

The many dog owners who take their pets for walks on sidewalks and bike paths could also face fines under the proposed ordinance. Dogs must be leashed, and dog droppings must be removed from the path and right-of-way.

McGuire acknowledged that enforcing the regulations will not be a top priority. He said fines could originate from citizen complaints or a police officer happening upon a violation.