City Council delays bike vote for ‘tweaking’

Last week’s City Council meeting included a lively discussion – and near vote – over banning bicycle riding on Plaza-adjacent sidewalks. But at the last minute, council members decided to put it off in order to make “minor tweaking” to the ordinance’s language.

The move to amend Sonoma’s bike-riding ordinance came, “In response to a bicycle vs. pedestrian accident and subsequent legal action,” according to the agenda, and was presented Wednesday by City Attorney Jeffrey Walter and Sonoma Police Chief Bret Sackett.

That accident occurred on Nov. 28, 2009, when Sonoma resident Wendy Mitchell was struck on a Broadway sidewalk by then-13-year-old Brett Bonfigli as he rode his bicycle. Mitchell, then 72, suffered severe brain trauma, resulting in a three-week coma and months of rehabilitation, according to her attorney.

Police did not find Bonfigli at fault, but Mitchell sued the family and settled for $1.4 million in September 2012, with the city of Sonoma paying $250,000 as part of the settlement.

The proposal discussed Wednesday would prohibit bicycle riding on the sidewalks in the Plaza area, including those on First Street East, First Street West, Spain Street and Napa Street. Although the Plaza is about three blocks from the location of the 2009 collision, city staff said that because the Plaza area has the most foot traffic, “this change will substantially address the safety concerns about pedestrian and bicycle conflicts.” Bicycle riding already is prohibited inside the Plaza.

Sonoma’s current ordinance allows anyone to ride on public sidewalks unless it is with “willful, wanton or reckless disregard of the safety of other pedestrians” – and on Wednesday, Sackett told council members that threshold “is difficult to prove and it’s a high bar.”

Therefore, he said, he and Walter proposed amending the ordinance to restrict riding on sidewalks “at a speed greater than is reasonable or prudent.” This language “would place a greater requirement on the bicycle rider to exercise due caution,” he said.

That, and the Plaza sidewalks ban – plus some tightening up of language regarding motorized wheeled transport – should make Sonoma safer for pedestrians, Sackett said.

Councilmember Steve Barbose asked Sackett, “Why are we doing this on the Plaza since the injury that led to the big lawsuit against the city was not on the Plaza?” The answer, Sackett said, had to do with the “highest probability” of bike accidents occurring there. Meanwhile, officials didn’t want to ban sidewalk-riding everywhere as it would force children to ride their bikes on the streets – and many felt they are safer on the sidewalks.

Public speakers were mixed on this notion. Sonoma resident Will Ackley said he believed banning bicycles from sidewalks “would affect the mothers and kids. They’re the ones mostly on the sidewalks,” while other adults are usually on the roads. “That’d be a real shame to take that away from them,” he added.

But others felt the sidewalks were equally hazardous, due to the presence of pedestrians or to cars exiting driveways.

As details like these came up, Mayor Tom Rouse asked how they might be reflected in the city code. In response, Walter said, “I think we could craft language that would offer some of these particulars.”

“I think that ordinances are more easily enforced if they are specific,” he said, adding that he suspects he and the chief “do not see eye to eye” on that. But he thought that if specific examples of “reasonable conduct” by bicyclists were given, “it would be very helpful for the officer” investigating an incident or enforcing the law.

Still, members felt they might be able to find a “happy medium on that,” as Barbose put it – and he asked Walter to add language to “clarify by way of example what the duties of the bicyclists are while riding on the sidewalks.”

That idea was supported by the council with a 5-0 vote. “We’re going to go back and fine-tune this a little bit,” Rouse explained.