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City considers taking ownership of sidewalks

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When considering how to improve sidewalks, city officials often mention the sidewalks that have Americans with Disabilities Act compliant ramps that lead to dirt or other difficult terrains for citizens in wheelchairs. This sidewalk is on North Union Avenue and West College Boulevard. (Alison Penn Photo)

Along with working to address the condition of local roads, city officials are deliberating how to improve Roswell’s sidewalks.

At a city retreat on Saturday, City Engineer Louis Najar said an ordinance was passed in February 2013 that states sidewalks belong to property owners. Najar said this ordinance led to issues when property owners were not replacing sidewalks after tearing them out for remodels.

“The question to be discussed or be presented to you all is — do you want the city to take over sidewalk maintenance and responsibility?” Najar asked the city staff and council. “In the existing policy, citizens are responsible. Citizens still complain about broken, missing, trip hazards and it’s their responsibility. There is no enforcement by the city. It’s hard to do that. If the city takes over, where is the money going to come from? What is the process to decide where sidewalks will be repaired and construction? If we take over responsibility, are the tort claims going to come up?”

Councilor Caleb Grant said the city has already seen claims involving people who were injured and the blame has fallen on the city — not the property owner.

Grant also mentioned the example of a weed violation, where the property owner would be notified by code enforcement to fix the issue. If the owner is not reached, the city will place a lien on the property.

Mike Mathews, special services administrator, confirmed Grant’s statement and said code enforcement and engineers would work together if funds were available. Mathews also said a list of sidewalks to be fixed would be lengthy. Councilor Steve Henderson said in the past there was a cooperative effort between the city and citizens to fix sidewalks.

In the case of dilapidated structures, City Manager Joe Neeb said the city will remove broken sidewalks.

“Sidewalks are a big deal,” Councilor Jacob Roebuck said. “They make the town look so much better — literally curb appeal of the town. So I hope we do get the chance to continue to chew on this and address this because it is extremely important that we figure out what the solution is.”

Councilor Juan Oropesa said the sidewalk policy Najar presented was for new properties, not existing properties. Oropesa said new developments are required to build a sidewalk and maintain it.

Oropesa also noted that in some areas of the historic district, trees that are affecting the sidewalk were planted by the city.

“The area between the sidewalk to the street is all city property,” City Attorney Aaron Holloman said. “No citizens would not have had input whether or not the trees were planted. It makes for an awkward situation because there is another place in our ordinance that says even though it is a city right of way that private property owner can be responsible for maintaining that.”

Councilor George Peterson said that many property owners may be on fixed incomes, and it could be a burden to fix and maintain a sidewalk. Peterson said he has also seen other cities with sidewalk crews and it seemed to be a cheaper option.

Councilor Roebuck said the city has to be sensitive when it comes to burdening citizens and suggested the city could set up a fund to assist with payment or zero interest loans.

“Sidewalks in front of a residence are public thoroughfare,” Mayor Dennis Kintigh said. “When development goes in they build the streets and the sidewalks. The streets do come through the city and we are then responsible for maintaining them. We are responsible for maintaining the sewer lines they put in and the water — anything else they put in. Once a development comes into the city, it’s our policy. They have to do it to our standards of code enforcement.

“I think what we need to do is bite the bullet so to speak and recognize that these are public thoroughfares and we need to take them over.”

Saying funds are the biggest issue, Kintigh noted the city could assess the sidewalks, like the city is doing with streets, and develop a plan for improvement.

“We know it is an issue that we have to fix,” Neeb said. “We have to make our sidewalks walkable again. One thing I want to make sure that happens when we go in there and reconstruct the streets like Louis (Najar) talked about — we cannot forget the sidewalks at that point and time either.

“When we go in there and we rebuild the street we want to go in there and fix those sidewalks. We want to fix all of our infrastructure at the same time so we are not back in that neighborhood and so that is the key with this whole thing.”

City/RISD reporter Alison Penn can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 205, or at reporter04@rdrnews.com.