Tackling trees

Committee says city—not property owners—should pay for damage to sidewalks

In 2014, the city took out 25 trees in the Mission Santa Fe neighborhood because their roots were damaging sidewalks.

In 2014, the city took out 25 trees in the Mission Santa Fe neighborhood because their roots were damaging sidewalks.

CN&R file photo

Erik Gustafson’s office at the city of Chico receives several calls a week about sidewalk problems. That’s hundreds of calls in a year. And he’s only seeing that number increase. Ninety percent of those calls, he says, are related to street trees.

“Sidewalk repair hasn’t been a priority from a budget or funding perspective,” Gustafson, Public Works director-operations and maintenance, told the CN&R. “Now we need to shift priorities. The frequency of calls is getting to a point where we need to do something long-term.”

The biggest issue? Money. But therein lies a conundrum. In most circumstances, property owners are responsible for repairing adjacent sidewalks. When the damage is caused by a city street tree, however, the responsibility is cloudy.

“That’s kind of the root of the problem, if you will,” Gustafson said. That’s why he presented the Internal Affairs Committee with three options at Monday’s meeting (Feb. 5). Option 1: Fund a program to fix sidewalks damaged by city trees, to the tune of $300,000 per year; Option 2: Implement a cost-share program in which the city and property owner would each pay half the cost; Option 3: Pin it all on the property owner.

As things are now, the Public Works Department has $12,000 in its budget to address sidewalk issues. That just won’t cut it, Gustafson said. Essentially, that will pay for five to eight proper repairs. To stretch resources, the city has been doing patchwork fixes, many of which will resurface in three to five years, he said.

“We only have the resources to do temporary repairs,” he said. When they recognize a tripping hazard—typically when a sidewalk is raised 1 inch or more—they head out with the cement grinder and grind it down. “When a tree root is causing that, it’s only a temporary fix.”

Gustafson emphasized that his department is trying to shift to more permanent solutions. In addition to seeking funding options, it’s looking into improved technology to help save time and money.

“Our tree inventory is growing and there are going to be impacts on infrastructure,” he said. “We’re trying to be proactive, looking at impacts that are going to affect the city and citizens 10 to 15 years down the road.”

Before opening the issue up to public comment, the committee members posed a few questions. For instance, Vice Mayor Reanette Fillmer asked, if property owners are asked to foot the bill, how will the city ensure compliance? And, if they can’t afford to fix the sidewalk, what then? Gustafson explained that it would be up to Public Works to ensure property owner compliance and that the city likely would make the repairs and then seek payment via liens if necessary.

A handful of citizens attended Monday’s meeting to speak on the subject, including Mike Campos, owner of Campos Properties. He told the committee that he’s had several problems regarding street trees damaging sidewalks adjacent to his property, and he’s had trouble dealing with the city to fix them. Rather than deal with a temporary fix, he’d prefer to just take down a tree—but that’s been a tough sell, he said.

Ken Fleming alternately spoke to the value of allowing the urban canopy to grow. After an old-growth tree was taken down near his home, he said, his PG&E bill went up significantly.

Mary Ellen Young expressed frustration that the city is considering passing the cost onto property owners. “How much can you take from a homeowner?” she said. “We’re older, we cannot afford these things.”

Ultimately, the committee members agreed that the city should foot the bill. They voted 3-0 in favor of recommending Option 1—the city-funded program—to the City Council. Expect this to head to that panel in early March.