Public Comment

Sidewalks, Liability and Street Trees

By Bob Brokl
Thursday January 15, 2009 - 06:29:00 PM

At the federal level, all the talk has been about boosting infrastructure spending to lift the economy. In Oakland, property owners may be required to ante up the stimulus out of their own pockets.  

A recommendation from City Attorney John Russo and approved by the Public Works Committee Dec. 16 will force property owners to share liability with the city for sidewalk injuries, unless the accident was caused by sidewalk damage from city-planted street trees.  

Under a 1911 state law private property owners are responsible for the maintenance of sidewalks abutting their property. Now the city will require property owners to repair their sidewalks, or face the prospect of the city undertaking the repairs and liening the property. This new program will add money to the revolving sidewalk fund, whereby the city repairs the sidewalks of owners who don’t quickly make repairs themselves and then collects liens.  

According to the Public Works officials, 84 percent of the city’s sidewalks are considered satisfactory, 16 percent are not. Seventeen percent of the damage is attributed to tree damage, and 70 percent of this is by official city trees. 

Based upon the plan approved by the committee, to be heard by the full City Council on Jan. 20 (Inauguration Day!), sidewalks on residential streets will not be repaired, except in special circumstances. Public Works has decided to concentrate for five years on repairing sidewalks on commercial corridors where, they say, the pedestrian traffic occurs. (Is it just a coincidence that these are the corridors favored for high-density condo projects that would be serviced by the proposed Bus Rapid Transit (BRT?) 

Sixty-five percent of the available money will go to these corridors, 20 percent will be for slip and fall complaints (after the fact?) and 15 percent will be for ADA complaints.  

But not all stretches of the commercial corridors have that much foot traffic, and some sidewalks seem always to be being replaced—for example, the section of 51st between Telegraph and Broadway.  

The prioritization seems very staff driven, but all the Councilmembers on the Public Works committee voted yes, or abstained.  

A legal decision upholding San Jose’s ordinance forcing private property owners to share financial responsibility for slip and fall injuries has encouraged Oakland to do the same. City attorneys indicated liability tied to street tree damage would be the city’s responsibility in the event of litigation, but allowed that any smart attorney would go after the property owner and their insurance company, and the city.  

Kernighan acknowledged the many concerned calls and e-mails she’d received from citizens (many not realizing sidewalk replacement was their charge) and noted Russo’s own report showing the city only paid out some $260,000/year in liability claims, but voted yes.  

Chang stated many hills residents don’t realize “sidewalks” mean all the space including curbs, right-of-ways, etc. between the street and their property, but voted yes. 

Nancy Nadel was the most reluctant to send the matter up to the council before more citizen outreach occurred, and abstained. 

Desley Brooks pushed hard to have it sent to to the council. She called upon Dan Gallagher, tree supervisor in Public Works, to verify the city did indeed have records of most street trees planted. (Citizens, including this author, complained about the city’s poor record keeping.)  

So, if you have a sidewalk problem you may be forced to fix it, or have the city do it and lien you. If you have sidewalk damaged by an official tree, you’ll likely wait years for repairs. 

Currently the city is committed to repairing street tree-damaged sidewalks three times, then it’s your problem. We’ll worry in 300 or so years. And why not call and e-mail the councilmembers about the scheduling conflict with Inauguration Day and suggest they “change” the date. 


Bob Brokl is a North Oakland resident.