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Council debates push for homeowners to pay sidewalk repairs

After learning that it may cost more than $46 million to fix the city's sidewalks, members of the San Diego City Council's infrastructure committee suggested homeowners and businesses should shoulder more of the burden of repairing their own sidewalks.

At issue is a 40-year-old ordinance requiring the city to cover at least half the cost of many sidewalk repairs.

Although the committee did not vote on a specific change to the law, it recommended that the City Council as a whole review a study by the Independent Budget Analyst office comparing San Diego's policies to other cities in California that impose a greater share of the costs and liabilities of sidewalk maintenance.

"Government shouldn't be held accountable to subsidize private property," said Councilwoman Marti Emerald.

"We need to communicate to the public that they need to take a bigger share of this. This is an expense that government should not be forced to shoulder. … It's important enough so we shouldn't just chitty-chat about it."

Emerald suggested that the committee work with City Attorney Jan Goldsmith and officials from the mayor's office to propose heavy revisions to Council Policy 200-12, passed in 1975.

The policy requires the city to pay fully for certain kinds of sidewalk damage — such as damage from water main breaks, heat expansion or the roots of city-planted trees — and sets up a cost-sharing program for other types of breaks.

But Councilwoman Lorie Zapf urged a more cautious approach, successfully urging that it merely pass information on the issue to the council as a whole for further discussion.

"For such a big sea change, we should wait until the whole City Council can weigh in," she said. "There are a lot of issues here involving case law and liability where it would be better to have a discussion among all nine members of the City Council. This is a big deal."

As an example, Zapf asked who should be responsible for repairs if the city planted a tree in front of a house 30 years ago and didn't maintain it properly, so that its roots damaged the sidewalk.

"This is a very complicated issue," she said.

The discussion came as the council reviewed the city's first comprehensive study of conditions in the city's 5,000 miles of sidewalks, performed by teams of student engineers from UC San Diego and San Diego State University.

The review — which cost $800,000 — found 62,000 places where sidewalk cracks have left one piece of pavement at least half an inch higher than the neighboring piece, including 22,000 sites where the gap was more than 1.5 inches and nearly 8,000 places where the gap was more than 3 inches. Such gaps can lead to accidents for pedestrians.

"The people of San Diego deserve trip-free sidewalks," said Mark Kersey, who chairs the infrastructure committee.

"Especially for the elderly and for young children, it's a matter of public safety. The city pays out millions of dollars on these claims each year."

Technically, the city owns the sidewalks, but under California state law, the owner of the adjacent property may be held liable for repairs.

In San Diego, that law was superseded by Council Policy 200-12, but other cities have taken different approaches. In San Jose, for instance, property owners not only must pay for repairs, but are also legally liable for accidents that take place if the sidewalk is cracked or broken.

In contrast, San Diego city government has traditionally assumed liability unless the adjacent property owner is clearly to blame.

Beyond the sidewalk gaps, the study noted that there were 7,600 areas where sidewalks damaged by tree roots, 7,400 areas where sidewalks had sunk and nearly 1,500 where there were other gaps. The total bill came to an estimated $46.4 million, dwarfing the $6.7 million the City Council set aside for sidewalk repair.

In addition to the repairs, the study found 25,000 street corners that lacked ramps for the disabled and 20,000 where the ramps were inadequate. And there were 620 miles of streets without any sidewalks.

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City of San Diego

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San Diego, CA 92101

City of San Diego Executive(s):

Sherri Lightner

  • Council President Pro Tem

Kevin Faulconer

  • Mayor

Todd Gloria

  • Council President

Myrtle Cole

  • City Council Member

Mark Kersey

  • City Council Member

Lorie Zapf

  • City Council Member

Scott Sherman

  • City Council Member

David Alvarez

  • City Council Member

Marti Emerald

  • City Council Member

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