Who owns the sidewalk?


San Diego sidewalks

Total length:

More than 5,000 miles

Annual requests to repair sidewalks:


Most common cause of sidewalk damage:

Tree roots

Average cost to repair a section of root-damaged sidewalk:


—Source: City Attorney reports

How to report shoddy sidewalks

The city does not have staff to monitor sidewalk conditions, and relies on the public to bring hazards and eyesores to its attention. To report a cracked, uneven or crumbling sidewalk, call the city’s Street Division at (619) 527-7500.

Though property owners are responsible for some repairs, city picks up tab for most injuries

By Pat Sherman

Phil Coller, president of the La Jolla Village Merchants Association and owner of Everett Stunz bath boutique on Girard Avenue, is “disgusted” with the state of La Jolla’s sidewalks, which he said have a “detrimental effect on the appearance of the Village” and create trip-and-fall hazards.

“Up and down Girard you will find holes everywhere, grating missing, brickwork missing, gradients wrong. In some cases, there is very limited access for wheelchairs to get on and off the sidewalk,” he said. “They need to be upgraded and repaired.”

The question of who is responsible for those repairs, however, is not always black and white.

Phoning the city of San Diego, Coller was told that it is the owner of the residential or commercial property adjacent to the sidewalk who is responsible for its upkeep and repair — with some minor exceptions.

Speaking with the

La Jolla Light

, Hasan Yousef, deputy director of the San Diego Street Division, confirmed that assertion.

“The bottom line is that the adjacent property owner is responsible for maintaining the sidewalk in front of their property, per California Streets and Highway Code 5610.”

To help property owners pay for repairs, the Street Division of San Diego’s Transportation and Storm Water Department initiated a “50/50 Cost Sharing Program,” in which the city will foot the bill for half of repairs to “old and deteriorated” sidewalks.

In order to qualify for the program, Yousef said the sidewalk must be standard city-installed concrete, as opposed to upgraded or decorative sidewalk installed by a current or former property owner.

After sending a city inspector to assess the scope of the work, the city will mail a cost estimate to the property owner. Once the city receives a check for the property owner’s portion of the repair, it will schedule the work, Yousef said. The city also will waive the cost of a permit (about $500) and a required city inspection (about $200) that the property owner would need to pay if he or she were doing the work themselves.

Under the city’s 50/50 program, Yousef said, “I’ve seen costs to property owners ranging from $500 to $2,500. Our work is done to city standards, guaranteed and inspected.”

According to a 2011 memorandum by City Attorney Jan Goldsmith, the city allocates $200,000 to $300,000 per year for the 50/50 program, though demand for the program has waned in recent years.

While the cost-sharing program paints a picture of a benevolent city bureaucracy, Council Policy 200-12 actually supersedes state law, shifting much of the responsibility for sidewalk repairs onto the city.

The policy, adopted in 1975, calls for the city to pay the entire cost of repairs to city-installed sidewalks if the damage is caused by public tree roots, grade subsidence (uneven sidewalks), heat expansion or city utility cuts — or if the sidewalk fronts a city-owned property or is at a street intersection (with no abutting property).

If a city-owned vehicle, such as a garbage truck, caused the damage, it would be paid for by the city, but not if the damage was caused by a private vehicle, Yousef said.

Though state law provides a method by which “the city can recover the cost of sidewalk repairs from property owners who fail to make the repairs themselves … it is neither practical nor cost effective to pursue the cost of recovery from property owners for sidewalk repairs,” the city attorney opined.

Ownership at issue

As to who owns the sidewalk, the city attorney’s communications director, Gina Coburn, said it is actually owned by the city. The city merely has a right of way for public use of the underlying property.

Even though the city owns the sidewalk, the property owner is obligated to maintain and repair the sidewalk under California Streets and Highways Code section 5610,” Coburn responded, via e-mail.

Injury: who’s liable?

If Humpty Dumpty were to have a great fall while strolling down Wall Street, the city attorney opined, “Even though the adjacent property owner is responsible for maintenance and repair (of the sidewalk), the property owner is generally not liable for injuries to the public.”

(San Diego attorney Matt Peterson said the city can also be held liable for damage to private property that directly results from of the city’s lack of care and maintenance of its right of ways, including sidewalks.)

Coburn said there are some cases where the property owner has been found liable for injuries caused by improperly maintained sidewalks, though she said, “There is no easy way to determine the amount.”

However, the city attorney’s memorandum states how the city could begin shifting more of the burden to the public: “To encourage property owners to maintain sidewalks, the city could adopt an ordinance making property owners responsible for injuries to the public resulting from their failure to maintain and repair sidewalks as required by state law. … Faced with declining revenues, increased backlogs of deferred maintenance and potential liability for trip and falls, (some California) cities are considering new local laws that emphasize the responsibility of private property owners.”

Etched in cement

The city and property owners also bear some responsibility for maintaining portions of sidewalks with historical significance, such as plaques and etchings that were carved in cement by handymen and contractors from the early 1900s.

Carol Olten of the La Jolla Historical Society said she believes there are about 30 such bits of significant history within La Jolla’s sidewalk system.

Yousef said the city does its part to preserve these historic etchings.

“But just because it is a historic sidewalk, it does not turn over the responsibility (for repairs) to the city,” he said. “If the property owner is doing the repair, they’re required to preserve the historic markings.”

Jewel-worthy sidewalks?

Though many property owners throughout the Village have spruced up the sidewalk in front of their spaces with decorative brick or concrete, the city is not required to maintain or repair these privately upgraded sidewalks, Yousef said.

“If there’s a diversion from city standards, which is the standard concrete sidewalk, the city would not be responsible for maintenance and they would either be maintained by the business assessment districts or maintenance assessment districts or the property owner who’s fronting that sidewalk,” he said. “Damage could be caused by a (city) tree, but because the sidewalk is nonstandard the property owner is responsible for its maintenance.”

Coller said that when he remodeled his store about five years ago, he paid a contractor to install a new and nicer concrete sidewalk. He points to recent sidewalk work done by Eddie V’s restaurant on Prospect Street as a model for what could be done to spruce up aesthetics underfoot in the Village.

“What we really need is the sidewalks repaired, but ideally made pleasurable to see,” he said. “It would just change the whole view of the Village.”

Coller said he would like to see the Merchants Association or other organizations work with the city to install more decorative, sidewalks — creating a uniform design down entire streets, as opposed to the odds and sods collection of private sidewalk designs currently seen in portions of the Village.

“One side could have red concrete and one side could have a wavy pattern,” he said. “It would have a huge effect on the way people feel about the Village. It would brighten peoples’ days up.”