The alleys of North Waco are a little-seen world of snarling dogs, overgrown brush and piles of tires, mattresses and sofas.
So little seen that District 4 Councilman Dillon Meek turned some heads last week as he zigzagged through them in his Toyota 4-Runner.
He was doing some field research for an ongoing discussion Waco City Council is having about alleyways and who should maintain them.
“It’s a public safety concern, and it’s a public health concern,” Meek said, brushing aside stalks of giant ragweed at a stop behind Sanger Avenue near 29th Street. “When things get too overgrown, there’s going to be rodents and mosquitoes.”
High weeds and trash have long been a problem along the city’s 70 miles of alleys, which are mostly concentrated in North, East and South Waco.
The question is whether it’s the city’s problem. In most cases, the alleys are owned by the adjacent property owners, and the city considers them responsible for maintenance, even though the city has an easement for public access.
In 2010, the city discontinued trash service in residential alleys, pulling out dumpsters that served about 4,500 customers.
Chuck Dowdell, who oversees solid waste and streets as Waco’s deputy public works director, said alleys are cleaner now than before the switch.
“I have pictures of what it was like before 2009, and it was a dumping spree like you couldn’t believe,” Dowdell said.
He said illegal dumping has decreased, and a crew from Goodwill Industries hauls out more than 57 tons of trash from the alleys each year under a contract that costs the city about $65,000 a year. There is still some illegal dumping, but the Goodwill contract goes a long way, he said.
But there’s no systematic city effort now to mow, trim or cut brush in alleys, something the parks department did when the city sent garbage trucks down the alleys regularly, Dowdell said.
He said the street department does about 175 hours of alley work a year, but it’s on a case-by-case basis.
When the council voted on the alley dumpsters in 2009, with Meek’s predecessor, Toni Herbert, as the lone dissenter, city staff said the city would send out crews to maintain alleys, but the scope of that work was not well defined.
In an informal report on alleys that Waco City Council discussed briefly this week, city staff did not mention that 2009 commitment.
“Given the reduced need for public access, the city of Waco does not maintain alleys or access thereof, unless pedestrian or vehicular access cannot be accomplished through the front or side of homes,” the report states.
But Meek said he would like more discussion about the role the city plays in keeping alleys maintained, and the council agreed to hold a future work session on the topic.
Meek said he has not yet settled on what role the city should play in alleys. It might involve more public education on property owners’ responsibility to maintain the corridors, and it might involve periodic brush-clearing, he said.
Meek noted that the city also can abandon and close off unused alleys, but that can require costly surveys and a petition from property owners on the block.
“There is a problem, and we need to figure out what the solution is,” he said on his tour of alleys Thursday. “When the transition happened, I have to think that if the idea was that citizens would take care of the alleys, that awareness was not bestowed on the people. Now alleys are so overgrown that even if we say ‘you’re responsible for this,’ it’s going to take more than a Weed Eater and a lawn mower. It’s going to take chain saws.”
Jane Williams, a retired Baylor University statistics instructor who lives on Live Oak Street in North Waco, said she has seen alleys in her neighborhood fall into further disrepair since dumpsters were removed.
Williams was a vocal opponent of ending alley pickup in 2009 and still thinks it was a mistake.
“All anybody has to do is drive down the numbered streets and look down the alley, and you’ll see in nearly all of them, at some point in the middle of the block, there’s excessive growth,” she said.
Williams said city leaders did make it plain during the transition that adjacent landowners were responsible for maintaining the alleys, but the uneven gravel surface of the alleys can make that difficult.
Sammy Smith, a Brook Oaks Neighborhood Association vice president, said he maintains his part of the alley behind his house on North 15th Street. But Smith said other parts of the alley were overgrown and unsightly until a couple of weeks ago, when city crews cleaned it up because of his complaints.
“It was so grown over, you couldn’t even see the alley,” he said.
Smith said the problem is that some of the alley is flanked by vacant lots or vacant houses.
“It’s a nuisance,” he said. “It’s a health issue. It’s an eyesore issue. It’s a property value issue. . . . You have guys that bring ladies of the night back there. There’s not lighting. There’s high grass and weeds, and who’s going to see what’s going on? It’s a dumping ground for old couches and stoves.”
Across town in East Waco, District 1 Councilman Wilbert Austin said he also sees overgrown alleys. But Austin said he takes direct action, cleaning up the alleys with his riding lawn mower.
“The ones that need cutting, I’ll cut them,” he said. “Mostly it’s older people on these alleys. That’s why I do it.”
Austin said property owners need to be reminded of their duty to maintain alleys, but he supports Meek’s idea that the city should provide some help.
“I’m glad he brought it up,” Austin said.