Sonoma's expensive sidewalk surprise

One and three-quarter inches. That’s a number property owners should think about in the upcoming weeks. It’s a number that is crucial in a project the city is considering to repair sidewalk trip-hazards. And it is the threshold beyond which expensive sidewalk repairs could be required that, under state law, property owners will have to help pay for.

Director of Public Works and City Engineer Dan Takasugi is proposing the project to proactively fix trip-hazards all over Sonoma. Formally called the Sidewalk Trip-Hazard Repair Policy, Takasugi’s plan will divide Sonoma into 11 phases for cutting, starting in the Plaza and moving to areas with heavier foot traffic, with older sidewalk age and areas with “at-risk” populations (elderly and children, for example).

Takasugi initially presented this project to the City Council at its Aug. 19 meeting, noting that, historically, the City of Sonoma enforced the sidewalk repair ordinance by complaint only, and has not actively inspected sidewalks for trip-hazards.

Takasugi also explained that when repairs are too extensive to use the saw-cutting method – meaning a trip-hazard raised more than 1.75 inches – the city would share a portion of the repair costs with adjoining property owners who, many may be shocked to learn, have legal responsibility for the condition of sidewalks fronting their property lines. During the meeting, he noted the cost as anywhere from $600 to $1,500, but later stated costs would vary based on location and severity.

The project would be funded through the city’s general fund and Measure J tax dollars. It is budgeted at $50,000 per year, over the course of a proposed 11 year period, Takasugi said, with approximately half of the funding used for saw-cutting the minor trip-hazards, and the other half for cost-sharing repairs of larger trip-hazards.

Assistant Attorney John Abaci said there have undoubtedly been trip and fall cases in which an individual sued the City of Sonoma and the neighboring property owner. While no recent cases came to mind and liability in these lawsuits is determined on a case-by-case basis, Abaci said the city would like to avoid situations where it is named as a defendant. Under California’s Streets and Highway Code, explained Abaci, nearby property owners are responsible for maintaining sidewalks compliant with city code.

As outlined in the state’s code, cities can give abutting property owners notice to make repairs necessary to improve sidewalk safety conditions, but this requires a special assessment and a lien on the property when the hazard is not immediately taken care of by the owner, Abaci explained.

“My understanding from this proposal is to remedy those conditions that are found to be hazardous to the public and do it in a manor that will be more expedited instead of just sending out letters and going through a longer process,” Abaci said.

Takasugi’s plan uses the proprietary saw-cutting system of Precision Concrete Cutting, a national company with a branch in San Mateo. Company representative Joe Fouret explained, when the sidewalk is raised close to two inches, it cannot be cut using Precision’s method as it would weaken the sidewalk to a point that could create more cracks. In such a case, property owners will be given notice that they will have to fix the trip-hazard or share the cost with the city, Takasugi said.

The company’s unique method, said Fouret, aims not only to remove trip hazards through the saw cutting process, but also makes the sidewalk ADA compliant by ensuring proper slope and assessment of the area.

Precision has six patents on the specialized method, in which a crew of three people uses a diamond blade to saw the raised part of the sidewalk. “We are removing trip hazards from the ground up,” Fouret said, adding the small crew can repair up to 150 different hazards in day.

Fouret explained that most sidewalk deficiencies are caused by tree roots and said Precision’s method is especially efficient in Sonoma where there is a heritage tree law that protects some trees and requires certain precautions and specialized removal of trees in normal sidewalk repair methods. In areas where saw-cutting is possible, Fouret explained, trees will likely not be disturbed.

The first phase, which covers roughly five to six blocks, is slated to begin in November, said Takasugi.

Takasugi had been hopeful the project proposal would make it on the agenda for approval at the Sept. 16 City Council meeting, but the proposal is still being reviewed by the City Attorney and will likely be on the agenda later this fall.