Palo Alto Weekly

News - April 30, 2010

Pounding the pavement

Property owners could be responsible for sidewalk repairs, liability in wake of budget cuts

by Sue Dremann

The next time someone trips and falls on a raised or crumbling piece of sidewalk, Palo Alto property owners could be responsible for sidewalk repairs and potentially liability, if the city's proposed budget for the fiscal year 2011 is passed.

The Palo Alto Public Works Department is recommending cutting its annual sidewalk-replacement program, which would save $500,000, as part of the city's effort to close an $8.3 million budget gap.

Making property owners responsible for sidewalk upkeep is not new. The state Streets and Highways code allows cities to pass on sidewalk costs — and liability — to property owners. Many cities, including Menlo Park and Mountain View, already assign responsibility to property owners.

Menlo Park requires owners to maintain sidewalks, parking strips, curbs, retaining walls and other infrastructure between the property line and the street, unless the damage is caused by a city tree, according to the city.

In Mountain View, the city pays for emergency repairs, but sidewalks may not be replaced for years. Residents who want sidewalks replaced earlier have paid 50 percent of costs, said Bob Kagiyama, the city's principal civil engineer.

Palo Alto officials are in the beginning stages of trying to figure out how the program would work.

As currently proposed, the city would still make temporary fixes for hazardous conditions, such as raised concrete, which would be filled with asphalt or ground down to make concrete slabs meet.

But when old concrete needs replacement, the city could require property owners to take responsibility, according to Glenn Roberts, the city's public works director.

How much responsibility, financially or legally, that a homeowner would take on is still uncertain, Roberts said.

"Some cities do 50-50; some do 100 percent," he said.

If Palo Alto requires a property owner to cover 100 percent of costs, the owner could receive a notice directing them to hire a contractor. In a 50-50 agreement, the city might bill the owner for half the costs, he said.

Roberts said the city pays $3 per square foot on average for sidewalk repair. A typical replacement area is 40 to 50 square feet, he said. But he cautioned the $3 price is a discounted rate to the city as part of a large contract.

The average consumer price to replace a segment of the sidewalk, excluding permit costs, is $1,250, according to Dennis Turchet, owner of Peninsula Concrete Contractors, Inc. in Redwood City.

Additional permit fees vary from about $250 to $350, according to Palo Alto concrete contractor Mick Pellizzari of A. Pellizzari & Co. Inc.

Sidewalk liability could also be a sticking point for many property owners, although homeowners' insurance usually covers it, Roberts said.

In January, the city paid $24,000 to resident Paula Goldberg after she tripped over a buckling slab of concrete on Waverley Street in 2006 and tore a ligament in her thumb.

City Attorney Gary Baum said the city has paid $50,000 to $350,000 a year for sidewalk-related injuries in the last six years.

The budget proposal does not include a transfer of liability to property owners, but that could change. A possible transfer has been discussed internally by city staff, Baum said.

Some residents said transferring sidewalk maintenance to homeowners is a bad idea.

Kay Schauer said the majority of sidewalk damage she and her husband encounter during their daily walks is caused by roots from city trees.

Schauer said it would be unfair to have to pay for the city-caused damage if the crack washes out and breaks up the pavement.

But cosmetic repairs are another matter. When someone wants to match the color of the rest of the sidewalk or to raise the pavement to the level of their driveway, the city should not be responsible, she said.

"Years ago City Council adopted a wonderful goal for a very high percentage of 50 percent shade on roads and parking areas ... and committed the resources to achieve that goal," said Trish Mulvey, a former steering committee member for the San Francisquito Creek Watershed Council.

"The proposal that sidewalk repair costs be shifted to residents will inevitably lead to a loss of our urban forest as individual property owners opt to remove trees in lieu of maintenance costs — our own short-sighted 'tragedy of the commons,'" she said.

The City of Palo Alto will hold a community meeting on proposed budget cuts on May 15 at 9:30 a .m. at Lucie Stern Community Center, 1305 Middlefield Road.

Staff Writer Sue Dremann can be e-mailed at sdremann@paweekly.com.

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