Owner care of sidewalks rebuffed

Homeowners, not the county, should be held responsible for sidewalks that run in front of their homes, says San Luis Obispo County’s public works director.

But his proposal to shift costs and liability has met a noticeable lack of enthusiasm from the Board of Supervisors.

Public Works Director Paavo Ogren told supervisors last week that state codes require property owners to “make any needed repairs to sidewalks fronting the parcel.” If they don’t, the government agency can fix it and bill the homeowner, he said.

Despite these codes, the county has spent half a million in taxpayer dollars over the past three years on sidewalk repairs, Ogren said.He suggested that the county create an ordinance that would “assign liability” to the property owners.

The supervisors, however, met the idea with questions and skepticism when the issue came up at last week’s meeting. Supervisor Bruce Gibson, for example, asked whether the county had “a clear sense of the legal situation.”

County Counsel Warren Jensen said he would have to research the question.

Controlling costs is of paramount importance to all levels of government in these tight budget times.

Last fall, the supervisors received a report that said the county faces a $24 million budget gap in the General Fund for 2010-11. That follows deficits of $18 million and $30 million in the past two fiscal years.

Even so, Supervisor Katcho Achadjian said in a telephone interview that the idea of making hard-pressed homeowners responsible for sidewalks “just doesn’t make sense” and seemed like an effort to shift costs to them.

Ogren seemed to be asking “what else can we get rid of and dump it on the community,” Achadjian said.

“We all had serious reservations,” Supervisor Adam Hill later said.

Asked later to elaborate on the proposal, Ogren reiterated that the state Streets and Highways Code “provides the ability to have property owners fix sidewalks, and many agencies do place the responsibility on property owners.”

He noted that the board gave his department no instructions to go forward with an ordinance.

“The bottom line is that we were not directed to pursue a transfer of responsibility at this time,” he wrote in an e-mail to The Tribune.The property line, he added, “actually usually extends to the middle of the street.”

In an accompanying document, Ogren said homeowners are required to maintain sidewalks in the cities of San Luis Obispo and Atascadero.

In a later e-mail, Dave Flynn of the Public Works Department explained that “over the past couple decades, the amount of sidewalk in the county has mushroomed.”

“Back in the ’80s, sidewalk was in place mainly in the older beach communities and some residential tracts,” he wrote. “Due to this limited inventory, our crews would undertake repairs when we received complaints.”

However, Flynn added, “In the mid-2000s, sidewalk repair complaints became more common in connection with maturing trees and their roots.

“Over the last few years, we have continued to repair complaints as we are notified of issues that come up, but with this greater inventory came greater expense, and so we needed to study options for working on sidewalks in the future.”