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Boro Residents Could Pay for Sidewalk Maintenance

Borough will provide lists of local contractors for residents.

could change its practice of maintaining sidewalks to follow the letter of the sidewalk ordinance, which puts responsibility on homeowners' shoulders in certain situations.

The borough has worked on replacing lifted or uneven slabs of sidewalk since 2005, when an inventory by the borough's found 6,230 sidewalk slabs needed to be replaced.

Most sidewalks get damaged or lifted because of tree roots, which leaves the borough with the option of either taking down the tree or shaving the tree roots. Replacing each slab costs about $75, and over the past seven years the cost of replacing damage sidwalks has grown from $100,000 to $275,000.

When the cause of the damage is tree roots, however, Engineer Vincent J. DeNave told the council at the Monday, June 11 meeting he finds himself "going back to the same houses I was at five years ago, because that tree is still growing."

The borough has a history of installing sidewalks around existing trees, and along Watchung Avenue. However, where those trees are the property of the borough, the practice may end in order to preemptively decrease the cost of sidewalk maintenance.

"Trees are going to have to come down," DeNave said, if only because of the continued expense. As Councilman James Collander said, "We can't have sidewalks being 25 percent of our capital budget every year."

DeNave said he was thought trees should be replaced, if they are cut down, but "we need to make sure it's the right species of tree," one without spreading roots that could potentially damage sidewalks.

The issue also impacts the Shade Tree Commission, Council President James Lonergan pointed out, since it would impact what kinds of trees could or should be planted, and where, especially when so many trees and branches came down in the .

DeNave also pointed out that common practice has been, when removing a sidewalk to trim roots of borough trees, "if the borough takes it out, the borough puts it back in, and that's not what the ordinance says. ... I think it's an inconsistency in what we actually practice, and I think it should be addressed." Instead if the slab breaks, which DeNave said is likely, the homeowner would have to pay to replace it.

Additionally, if a sidewalk has hazardous listing or another dangerous issue not caused by borough tree roots, DeNave suggested the borough begin alerting homeowners of the problem and giving them 90 days to fix the sidewalk.

"There's an enforcement component, where we have a liability component if we don't [cite the residents,]" DeNave said. "Our ordinance says we should be citing these folks if we see it. If we don't do that, I think that there is a certain responsibility on our part."

Councilman Len Resto said in the interest of fairness, since enforcing the letter of the ordinance would go against common practice, "maybe there's a middle course where we split it 50-50."

Councilman Vicki Fife said the cost to engage a contractor to replace sidewalks would be much more expensive for homeowners than for the town.

DeNave said the problem in that situation comes if homeowners do not pay, in which case "we become bill collectors and have to put liens on [the residents," and the borough would still be responsible for paying the contractor first and collecting funds from homeowners later. The liability for those sidewalks would be the borough's, as well.

"At the end of the day we have an ordinance we're not enforcing," Collander said, and "no council in the past has wanted to tackle that issue."

DeNave proposed conducting a new survey with attention on the causes of damages to the sidewalks. Afterward, the borough will go through the town by sections and investigate the sidewalks.

"We'll have to do a bit of a media blitz" and warn homeowners to "get your own contractor now, if you have a problem, or you're going to be hit" with a warning letter giving the owner 90 days to fix the sidewalk, DeNave said. He said he was happy to give a list of local contractors to homeowners, and to warn the contractors, "If you gouge the homeowners, we'll take you off the list."

The council agreed to change the ordinance to follow DeNave's suggestions.

Chathamhomeowner June 19, 2012 at 02:46 AM
So if I am reading this correctly, i as a home owner will be responsible for a broken sidewalk that may be caused by a tree that the borough may not allow me to have cut down? If the tree is causing a problem that the town knows is a recurring one based on multiple visits and remedies, why doesn't the town simply cut down and replace the tree? it appears to me that the town is incorrectly addressing the problem to begin with by fixing the sidewalk each time rather than fixing the tree that causes the problem and is now looking to pass an even bigger bill along to homeowners? Will homeowner taxes be reduced in the process or is this just a way of implicitly increasing homeowners taxes?
proud papa June 19, 2012 at 11:52 AM
I am very disappointed in this short-term view. To save a few hundred thousand dollars, it will result in numerous homeowners cutting down their trees. Which will result in reduced property values/sales, which will result in less taxes, most likely to be similar or more than what would be saved in maintenance costs. This short-term view is disturbing. This type of mindset is what sets towns on a downward spiral, and it concerns me as to what else the town is not taking a more appropriate longer-term view on (e.g. education, safety). I would urge our newly elected officials to reconsider this short-sighted recommendation by DPW. Instead, plant the "correct" (read: much lower maintenance trees) in the appropriate places, and fix the sidewalks that were the result of previous poor planning by town officials, not homeowners. Thanks.
Ron Swanson June 19, 2012 at 01:47 PM
The Borough should not plant another tree anywhere in this town until it first takes care of the large number of overgrown and half dead trees littering the curb lines, hanging over power lines, and uplifting sidewalks. We need to take care of what we already have before we worry about being a "Tree City". Also, many sidewalks around town were installed despite the opposition of residents. To now add insult to injury by telling those residents that they have to pay to replace those sidewalks is troubling. Pushing that cost onto homeowners is just a tax increase by a different name and method, and another way for the Borough to skirt the 2% tax levy cap. I agree that sidewalks should not come anywhere near 25% of the town's capital budget, but the fact that it is means something is clearly not right, and the process and cost needs to be looked at carefully. To tell Borough residents: "your taxes are going up 7% this year, and also by the way, we're also passing a significant capital cost onto you as well", is ridiculous. What are taxpayers getting in return for their 7% increase? Are the only beneficiaries of a tax increase that's 5% beyond the cap municipal workers?
anywednesday June 19, 2012 at 07:04 PM
I agree with all the above comments. Call a tax a tax. I would be very disappointed in any council member who takes DeNave's position, which seems a little self serving to me; isn't managing the sidewalks part of the engineer's job, and isn't that part of our taxes already? The fairest solution to me is, as Councilman Resto suggests, to split the cost 50/50 with the homeowner, but also to offer guidelines and options as to when to remove and replace the tree, trim the tree, or another solution.
Tom Saywer June 20, 2012 at 02:32 PM
So I will be accountable for fixing and maintaining sidewalks and trees that are not mine and also assume liability as well!? Meanwhile the Township is going to be adding sidewalks - are those residents also responsible for the upkeep? Where's our new Mayor on this? Let's start by having the Borough leadership look closely at how this money is being spent and why it costs 25% of our budget . Do our neighboring towns have the same spend ratio in their budgets and how do they fund it? Ridicules!

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