Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Treacherous sidewalks: who’s at fault?

It’s hardly surprising that in a venerable old neighborhood such as ours many of the sidewalks have degenerated to a condition something well short of pristine. Indeed, some Madison Park sidewalks are in such disrepair that they constitute a real safety hazard for the unsuspecting walker or runner. Many Madison Parkers have learned (in some cases, the hard way) that the best approach to navigating sidewalks in the neighborhood is with one’s eyes firmly glued to the pavement. And when fall leaves cover the sidewalks it’s best to be doubly vigilant, for it may not be obvious what lurks beneath all of that autumn color.

Many sidewalks here date to the early 1900’s, and over time a lot of shifting may have occurred in the ground underneath. The biggest culprit is tree roots, but water is another major factor in undermining sidewalks and causing them to dislocate. These are the principal reasons why our neighborhood sidewalks got into bad shape, but the reason why some of them remain in a deplorable state is that many of us simply fail to live up our obligations.

Now I know that this is probably going to come as a tremendous shock to a few of you, but it is a fact that under City ordinance property owners are responsible for the sidewalks adjacent to their property. What this means in practice is this: if you are a home owner you must keep the public “right of way” surrounding your property in good condition and clear of obstructions. Cracks in the sidewalk and uneven surfaces must be repaired—and don’t expect to be reimbursed by the City for your efforts.

There is a big exception to the rule, however. And that has to do with damage to the sidewalk that is caused by trees that are City owned. You are responsible for reporting the sidewalk damage, but the City is responsible for making the repairs. If you are unaware of whether the City owns the offending trees, you may call the Urban Forest Office (684-8733) to find out. The sidewalk repair just completed in the business district along E. Madison Street is being paid for by the City, which was the owner of the trees whose roots were responsible for most of the uneven sidewalks in the area. It is common, I am told, for the City to own trees along arterial routes; but it is much less likely for the City to own the trees on side streets.

According to the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT), sidewalk repairs must first be approved by the City, which will grant a “street use permit” for the work. Asphalt or cement patches and “shins” (such as those shown below) can be acceptable alternatives to replacing an entire section of sidewalk.

Another option is to have the concrete “shaved” in order to create an even surface.

SDOT spokesperson Marybeth Turner told me that concerns about dangerous sidewalks should first be addressed to the respective property owner. If the appropriate repairs are not made, SDOT should then be notified. At that point, she said, the department’s Street Use Section will investigate the complaint and, where appropriate, issue a notice to the property owner to correct the problem.
What happens if the property owner does not take action? Well that’s a little less than clear. Turner said “we may refer the issue to our law department for legal action,” but when I pressed her on whether such action had ever been taken against a property owner she said she would have to get back to me.

I later received this finely crafted statement from her, quoting SDOT Right of Way Manager Brian dePlace:

“Usually, if the sidewalk is uplifted due to something the property owner is responsible for (a private tree, collapsed side sewer), they realize it’s in their best interest to comply. We do issue Notices of Violation, which informs the responsible party that we may take legal action if they do not comply. Generally, we achieve compliance at this point.”

So now you know.

[Afterthought: Some of you may wonder why “sidewalk safety” is worthy of a posting when it might just as well fit into that catch-all blog category that I sometimes joke about, pet peeves--those little (sometimes petty) irritations we Madison Parkers have about life here in the ‘hood. The difference is this: I personally know several people who have been injured as a result of falling on unrepaired sidewalks in the neighborhood, and several years ago I myself broke my jaw in a fall on my own block. So here’s the rule for this blog: if something is just irritating to people then it’s a pet peeve; if it’s irritating and dangerous, then it’s a problem worthy of comment; and if I personally have been negatively impacted, then it’s a real issue of concern. I hope I’ve made these distinctions clear.]

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