Tripping Over Sidewalk Maintenance

This post was published in the San Mateo Daily Journal today, June 10, 2016.

Simple things sometimes turn out to be complicated when you dig into them. Take the question of who pays for sidewalk repairs. They’re a public asset, paid for by the city, right? So the city pays.

Wrong. They’re generally on public land, but the city didn’t build them, except in front of public buildings. Developers were required to install them when building homes and businesses.

In San Carlos, and most other communities, property owners must maintain the sidewalks bordering their property. This often strikes people as an overreach of government authority. But it’s similar to requiring functioning bathrooms in homes. Yes, you own the property. But you won’t be allowed to live on it without a working bathroom, because that lack poses a significant public health and safety threat. Your rights as a property owner can and are overridden by the public, acting through local government.

A city without sidewalks will expose the public to far more trip and fall hazards when people walk around than one that has them. Preventing such injuries is a legitimate public interest, so property owners can be required to install and maintain sidewalks.

But unlike the bathroom requirement, the public health and safety interest is less compelling. You can die from diseases spread through untreated sewage, but you won’t from getting your shoes dirty, or even from most falls. That raises the question of how far communities can go towards requiring property owners to maintain sidewalks.

To resolve that ambiguity, the Legislature long ago granted communities authority to require the maintenance be done by property owners. However, since sidewalks are on public property, a question remained as to how the city and property owners shared liability for accidents. The Legislature later clarified that situation, letting cities opt out of the liability. Naturally, most of them did.

San Carlos, like many cities, does monitor its sidewalks. Property owners are notified of problems, and asked to correct them. If they don’t, the city does the work and sends them a bill. But people often object to paying those bills, since they think sidewalks should be maintained through the taxes they already pay.

Last year I asked the Council to pay for half the cost of sidewalk repairs. That would cost about $60,000 annually, roughly 0.2% of the budget. Property owners definitely benefit from sidewalks – the Council gets requests from neighborhoods lacking them to install them – and so should contribute. But the public benefits too, and so some tax money should be contributed as well. My idea was rejected by a majority of my colleagues.

Recently, though, I learned of an interesting State court case. The ruling says a city may, in certain circumstances, be liable for up to half the damages in a trip-and-fall claim, because of the shared public/private interests.

That makes it harder to justify the community not contributing to maintenance. Not sharing forces a third-party – the property owner – to protect the public against liability on public property. That strikes me as unfair.

So I brought the court case and my idea up at our recent budget hearings. This time the reaction was different: Ron Collins and Matt Grocott are willing to consider it. Cameron Johnson and Bob Grassilli said they were not. However, Ron wants to review the issue with our city manager first. Since nothing comes before us without the support of three council members, it’s unclear if my idea will get discussed. Hopefully it will.

Anyone interested in seeing the play-by-play of our discussion can watch it online at (the sidewalk discussion starts at timestamp 3:18:13).

I encourage all San Carlans to familiarize themselves with this issue and share their perspective with the Council. It’s not something you want to trip over when a repair notice arrives in your mailbox!

2 thoughts on “Tripping Over Sidewalk Maintenance”

  1. Pingback: Change Sidewalk Repair Policy Petition

  2. Pingback: Action Alert: Council Abandons Sidewalk Repair Cost Sharing Discussion

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