Crumbling sidewalks and millions of dollars in injury lawsuit payouts are prompting the City of San Diego to explore drastic action, potentially including a requirement that property owners fix nearby damaged sidewalks before they can sell. Other proposals include property liens, waiving permit fees to encourage sidewalk repairs and educating property owners about their responsibilities and that the City is willing to split the cost of most repairs with them.
City officials may also create a master plan for tackling an estimated $39 million in needed sidewalk repairs so they can track their own progress and establish an ongoing maintenance program to limit additional payouts in coming years.
The proposals, which the City Council's Infrastructure Committee endorsed during a recent public hearing, come after more than $11 million in injury payouts during the last five years in lawsuits over damaged sidewalks. The City is facing steadily greater liability as more people ride bicycles and electric scooters on sidewalks, where even the smallest lip can cause a relatively high-speed crash with significant injuries.
"This is a massive problem all over the City," said District 2 Council member Lorie Zapf during the committee hearing. "The cost of having them not repaired often far exceeds the cost of repairing them up front."
Zapf said a key part of the problem is that most homeowners don't know that the sidewalk adjacent to their property is their responsibility under state law.
The new proposals, which City officials said they hope to enact this winter, come after a plan created last fall by District 8 Council member David Alvarez was rejected based on concerns it would sharply increase the cost to the City and its taxpayers. Alvarez wanted to accelerate repairs with a 90-day deadline to fix reported sidewalk damage and to eliminate the responsibility of homeowners to share the cost of fixing damaged sidewalks next to their property.
Supporters said shifting all costs to the City — and away from homeowners — would simplify a confusing policy and avoid the inaction that often comes when homeowners can't afford their portion of the repair bill.
City Attorney Mara Elliott, however, said a specific requirement like the 90-day deadline would make the City vulnerable to lawsuits when it's not met, with plaintiffs pointing out that the City violated its own policy. She also criticized the proposal to relieve property owners of repair costs, saying it would be a windfall for their insurance companies at taxpayer expense. Other cities have done exactly the opposite in recent years, she wrote in a memo.
Other cities' plans
So the City's Independent Budget Analyst spent several months studying how other California cities handle sidewalks and issued a report written by Jillian Kissee, a financial and policy analyst. The report's most significant policy proposal was requiring property owners to fix any damaged sidewalk adjacent to their property before they can sell, which would be modeled on a similar policy in Pasadena.
Alvarez expressed concerns that local real estate agents and some property owners would aggressively fight the policy, but said it seems like an effective solution.
San Francisco and San Jose have similar policies, Kissee's report said. They put a lien on a property with damaged sidewalks and allow cash-strapped homeowners to incrementally pay the city back for repairs. In addition, San Francisco allows individual homeowners to participate in competitive bids the City issues for larger sidewalk projects, typically reducing the cost of repairs.
Another proposal would waive San Diego's $1,600 permit fee when an individual homeowner decides to fix damaged sidewalk near their property without the City's help. District 5 Council member Mark Kersey, chair of the Council's Infrastructure Committee, suggested the City could establish a "permit holiday" for a limited time to encourage accelerated sidewalk repairs.
Kissee's report also recommended San Diego more aggressively publicize its 50-50 cost-sharing program for sidewalk repairs.
The City devotes about $300,000 per year to the program, but could allocate more if there was higher participation. City officials said 48 property owners took advantage of the program last year.
Another problem is lack of staff devoted to sidewalk repair projects, which prevented the City from spending a significant chunk of the $12 million included in its capital improvement budget last year. Additional staff could also follow up on sidewalk damage that is the responsibility of homeowners to ensure that either the damage had been repaired or that City officials are aware of the problem and the associated liability risks.
Finally, Kissee proposed the City set clear goals for tackling the $39 million repair backlog so progress can be tracked, budget allocations can be tailored to the plan and an ongoing maintenance scheduled can be created. She also recommended the City conduct a follow-up assessments of all of its sidewalks, a review that was conducted in 2015 for the first time in decades — if ever.
Alvarez said repairing sidewalks comes with benefits beyond avoiding payouts, noting that people using strollers and walkers also struggle with damaged sidewalks. "It's a real quality-of-life issue," he said.
City's liability losses
The new policy proposals follow a series of significant payouts by the City for sidewalk injuries.
The City paid $4.85 million to Del Cerro resident Clifford Brown in spring 2017 for a 2014 crash in which he tore spinal cord ligaments and lost several teeth when he and his bike were launched 28 feet by tree-damaged sidewalk. That settlement, the largest in City history for a case involving sidewalks, was unusually big because of Brown's medical bills, his need for future medical care and the possibility he won't be able to work again.
Last March, the City paid $1 million to Edward and Mary Jo Grubbs for injuries Mary Jo suffered when she tripped on uneven sidewalk in April 2016 on Park Boulevard at Madison Avenue in University Heights
In another notable suit, a jury awarded Cynthia Hedgecock, the wife of former Mayor Rodger Hedgecock, just under $85,000 last December for ruptured breast implants she suffered during a 2015 sidewalk fall. An attorney for Hedgecock said the City behaved with negligence and carelessness by not repairing a 2.5-inch concrete lip in a public sidewalk in Pacific Beach that was caused by a tree.
Council member Zapf said she was upbeat about the City's new proposals, but said that the problem will never be fully solved. "A lot of these seem almost like an act of God," she said, noting that much of the damage is caused by the root structure of trees expanding under sidewalks. "We want trees, but they have roots."