Buckled sidewalks can be an unsettling site for homeowners who wish to have proper upkeep of their property.

The curbs out in front of their homes can become mounds of concrete when a growing tree root busts through, potentially putting a passerby at risk of injury.

Though impacted property owners might consider such an occurrence to be an annoyance, for decades in the city of Los Angeles the responsibility for fixing broken sidewalks, curbs and driveways due to tree roots has been at the hands of the city. As the maintenance responsibility has been with the city so has the liability for any possible slip and fall accidents as a result of the damaged sidewalks and curbs.

According to a city Bureau of Street Services report, approximately 4,600 miles of sidewalks is estimated to be in disrepair, which would cost more than $1.2 billion to fix. The city has spent nearly $95 million between 2000-01 and 2008-09 to reconstruct an estimated 550 miles of damaged sidewalk, according to the report.

As the city continues to grapple with a serious budget deficit, a proposal is being discussed to amend an ordinance to transfer the city’s liability for repairing sidewalks damaged by tree roots to the affected property owner. Sidewalk repair was at one time the responsibility of the adjoining property owner but the city assumed the liability in 1974 due to available federal funding, according to the bureau report.

City attorney spokesman Frank Mateljan said the office has submitted a draft ordinance regarding sidewalk liability but the City Council is still reviewing the proposal. Still, the plan to shift responsibility for fixing broken sidewalks to the property owner and the potential liability of injury is something that does not sit well with some local residents.

“The city is trying to escape any responsibility here. On one hand I can understand it, but, wait a minute, the city is supposed to be protecting us from this,” Challis Macpherson, former chair of the Venice Neighborhood Council Land Use and Planning Committee, said of the liability issue. “One thing the city must do is protect the property owners; we’re the basis for this city’s being.”

Venice homeowner Sherry Curreri also took issue with the proposed transfer of liability, saying that being responsible for possible injury claims is of great concern. The issue could pose a problem at schools such as Coeur d’Alene Avenue Elementary, where sidewalks are in “terrible disrepair” and they lack the money to fix them, said Curreri, vice president of the school’s booster club.

“Sidewalks are city property and the city should be responsible,” she said.

The draft sidewalk ordinance has drawn the attention of the Westside Regional Alliance of Councils, which is asking the local advisory neighborhood councils to consider sending a letter of opposition to the offices of Councilman Bill Rosendahl and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, as well as support a community impact statement. Among the recommendations are to oppose the draft law as written and the transfer of liability for slip and fall accidents to the property owner.

Mike Newhouse, chair of the alliance and former president of the Venice council, touched on concerns with the plan saying the homeowners would not only be responsible for fixing the damage due to tree roots and be liable if someone gets hurt but they would not be allowed to remove the trees to take care of the problem.

“It’s a very bad change in three very fundamental ways,” said Newhouse, who introduced a motion to the Venice Neighborhood Council.

“It’s a very real concern… and the solution is not to put (the liability) on the backs of property owners.”

Newhouse believes that once the proposal receives wider attention it will garner much community opposition. The Venice council voted to approve the motion Tuesday, Aug. 17, while the Neighborhood Council of Westchester-Playa voted to support the opposition letter and community impact statement earlier this month.

Westchester-Playa council President Cyndi Hench referred to the beauty of neighborhood trees but noted how they can also create infrastructure problems with their roots tearing apart the sidewalks.

“In Westchester something feels homey, warm and rich and a lot of it has to do with the trees. But with those trees comes problems, especially the ficus trees,” Hench said.

One issue Hench found particularly troubling was how a homeowner, who does not have control over tree root damage, would be responsible and could not have the ability to remove the cause of the problem.

“It doesn’t make sense if the homeowner is not responsible or they don’t have the power to do anything about the root of the problem, how can they be responsible for the damage? How can you say that you don’t have control over the root of the problem but you have the responsibility for the problem it creates?” Hench asked.

“These sidewalks and their conditions belong to the city, therefore the repairs and the liability belong to the city.”

Another concern of some is that despite being prohibited from doing so, property owners might decide to remove the impacting trees to avoid having the liability.

“We will lose our urban forest because the property owner will say, ‘I won’t pay for that, off with the tree,’” Macpherson surmised.

The liability proposal could also pose problems by having the property owners essentially inherit years of sidewalk maintenance neglect, Hench said.

“This is like selling a time bomb off to someone after you’ve pulled the plug,” she said.

According to the proposal listed in the Bureau of Street Services report, it is recommended that a three-year moratorium be implemented on the issuance of any notices to repair sidewalks. It is additionally recommended that once a notice to repair is issued, the property owner be given 90 days rather than two weeks as originally stated.

Rosendahl explained that the proposal is still in the draft stage and as a homeowner, he understands his constituents’ concerns of being burdened with the liability. But when Rosendahl was public works committee chair, he said he looked into repairing the city’s sidewalks, which was estimated to cost over $2 billion.

“I don’t blame the homeowners who don’t want to be liable. My attitude is that we have to deal with the reality of all these sidewalks,” he said.

The councilman called the sidewalk maintenance issue very challenging and said one option discussed has been the so called “point of sale” in which the property owners would be required to make curb repairs when they put their house on the market.

“It’s an issue and a problem that we don’t really have any resolutions for other than the point of sale,” he said.

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