Trying to solve a tree problem that took root nearly 30 years ago, city officials find themselves out on a limb.
The most recent problem started when the city sent out letters early this month to more than 700 property owners in the large Grandview neighborhood, demanding that they pay to repair sidewalks damaged by shallow-rooted trees in front of their homes. About 140 people called City Hall, mostly to complain or question the need for the work. Petition drives opposing the charges have been started in the neighborhood north of the Peninsula Center shopping mall.
Bills ranged from $17 to $1,600, depending on the extent of the work needed. The city had wanted residents to pay the city for the work--or arrange to have it done themselves--by the end of July.
At a recent City Council session packed with unhappy residents, however, the deadline was extended by two weeks, and the council--which will discuss the issue again Tuesday--hopes to find a way to share the costs on a broader basis.
"Right now, it's on hold," said Councilman Melvin Hughes, who serves on a two-member council subcommittee on the tree problem.
The city already has negotiated with a Paramount company a $207,000 sidewalk repair contract, which the council is scheduled to consider on Aug. 6.
"The council has an open mind and if we can find a better way to do this work, we'll put off action," said Mayor John McTaggart.
Sidewalk damage is a chronic problem in the city because one-fifth of the trees that line its streets are Italian stone pines. They are a "beautiful and aesthetic tree," Public Works Director Charles Abbott said, but they have a shallow root system that raises and cracks sidewalks as the trees mature.
Even though the city has removed several hundred of the trees in the last three years, Abbott said the city still has 1,600 in its parkways--the grassy areas between curbs and sidewalks.
During the last five years, the city has repaired broken walks throughout the city, sharing the costs with property owners. The city was divided into five sections and one section was done each year, beginning with Grandview. Now that it's Grandview's turn again, the city says it can't afford to continue the program and wants property owners to pay the total bill--prompting the outcry.
Refused to Remove Trees
Some residents in Grandview, where many of the trees were planted in the 1950s when the area was being developed, also are up in arms because the city refused to remove the problem trees when the sidewalks were first repaired.
"They left the trees in that caused the damage," said Andrew Deliman, a retired school principal who has lived on Eau Claire Drive for 27 years.
Hughes said it is unfortunate that the city did not permit removal of the trees because the method the city chose to control them--pruning roots--didn't work.
"Because these residents were told they could not remove trees, maybe we owe them some cost-sharing," Councilman Hughes said. "That's one of the things we're talking about."
Less Costly Method
The city is also looking at a less costly grinding method to smooth walks that have been lifted by roots. Using that method, the walk is ground down with abrasives instead of being replaced.
Another approach being considered is the formation of assessment districts for landscape maintenance, which Hughes described as a plan that would "tax everybody a little each year" and provide money to repair sidewalks and maintain parkways on an as-needed basis. City Atty. Steve Dorsey has been asked to determine if this could be done under Proposition 13, the statewide measure that sets restrictions on property taxes.
It would take at least a year to enact such a plan because of legal requirements, so there is some question as to whether Grandview could benefit from it. Another obstacle could be the possible objections of residents without problem trees.
The city began a program in 1982 to take out Italian stone pines but ran out of money this year. The work cost the city about $100,000 a year.
Ended Ban on Removal
During spring budget sessions, the council ended a ban on removal of parkway trees by residents, but said they first had to obtain free permits from the city and would have to pay the cost of removal, which averages $250, Abbott said.
In the Grandview area, the city is requiring repairs when there is a separation between sidewalk sections of more than three-fourths of an inch.
Litigation is a major consideration for the city since it is liable for for accidents on the parkway.
"Our real concern is the cost and frequency of lawsuits and financial awards," said Hughes.
Many of the Italian stone pines were planted under county supervision before the city incorporated in the early 1970s. The city has not permitted the planting of them since 1981.