Northwest Lawrence residents ask city to reconsider requirement that property owners pay for sidewalk repairs

photo by: Rochelle Valverde

Northwest Lawrence resident Gene Mah gestures toward a depressed sidewalk panel adjacent his home. The city identified three hazards that need to be fixed on the sidewalk next to Mah's house.

Updated story

June 4 — Lawrence City Commission reviews potential changes to sidewalk policy; residents ask city to pay for repairs

This spring, 243 homeowners got a letter from the city telling them to fix their sidewalks or else have them condemned and fixed by the city at their expense.

On the receiving end of one of those letters was Sarah Farthing, who since then has joined with other residents in Northwest Lawrence to ask the city to halt the implementation of its recently established sidewalk maintenance policy. The policy, adopted by the Lawrence City Commission last year, requires property owners to fix sidewalks that run adjacent to their homes or businesses that are deemed hazardous.

The city considers a sidewalk hazardous if it has a vertical separation of more than half an inch or a horizontal gap or defect. Farthing told the commission at its last meeting that the sidewalks in her neighborhood weren’t causing problems and that the city needed to redefine what constitutes a hazard.

“You can imagine our frustration at watching concrete that is easily traversed by adults and kids on foot and on wheels ripped out of our yards, at our own expense,” Farthing said. “We all know sidewalks in this city that are in worse shape by an order of magnitude.”

photo by: contributed photo

Spray paint marks a hazard identified on the the sidewalk next to the home of Northwest Lawrence resident Sarah Farthing.

Specifically, city code defines a sidewalk hazard as a deflection of more than half an inch or a hole or depression that might catch the foot of a pedestrian in a manner to cause injury. Public Works Director Chuck Soules said those parameters were determined when the ordinance was drafted years ago and meant to make sidewalks safe for all pedestrians, including those with more limited mobility.

“It’s hard for people that are able bodied to understand what little defect can affect somebody that has issues like that,” Soules said. “I know people have argued a half inch is too little, but put yourself into somebody else’s shoes that really has to have it flat and smooth.”

Soules said that the cost of replacing a sidewalk using the city’s contractor is $7 per square foot for a standalone sidewalk or $8 per square foot if the sidewalk is part of a driveway, as the concrete needs to be thicker. That equates to $175 or $200 to replace a 5-by-5-foot sidewalk panel, meaning that property owners who must replace an entire sidewalk could end paying more than $1,000. Residents don’t have to use the city contractor, but the sidewalk must still meet city specifications.

The city marked Gene Mah’s sidewalk with three deflections greater than half an inch, according the hazard maps on the city’s website. Mah said he saw the city telling him to pay to repair the sidewalk next to his house as a contradiction, since he had no right to say whether the sidewalk would be put there in the first place. Like many of his neighbors, Mah said he saw it as the city’s responsibility, just like a street, park or other infrastructure.

“When people live next to city parks, do they have to pay to get the playground fixed? No,” Mah said. “For me, the bottom line is that it’s city property; city property is city responsibility.”

The city inspected the sidewalks in northwest Lawrence and sent letters to property owners in March informing them that they had 60 days to fix their sidewalks. The city has hired a contractor to make repairs caused by city infrastructure, such as manhole covers and street tree roots, and property owners can arrange individually to use the contractor. If residents don’t contract or make the repairs soon, the city will officially condemn the sidewalk, make the repairs and send the property owner the bill. If the bill is not paid, the cost will be added to the property owner’s tax bill.

The city separated Lawrence into eight zones, and neighbors also question why the city decided to begin the program in a newer section of town that has relatively few issues. Soules said that the city didn’t want to jump into an area where many repairs would be needed when it was just beginning the program. He also said that older sections of town would require more funding for the financial assistance available as part of the program. The program sets aside financial assistance for low-income residents and people on corner lots who have more than one sidewalk along their property.

Before the new policy, the city sent letters to property owners requesting that they fix their sidewalk only when a complaint was received. If the property owner didn’t fix that sidewalk, the city took no further action apart from sending letters. After decades of that practice, the city has estimated that there is approximately $9.4 million in sidewalk deficiencies in the city, made up of about $6.1 million in sidewalk repairs and $3.3 million in sidewalk ramps required by the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Northwest Lawrence resident Shannon O’Connor said the city has presented the sidewalk program as a way to address a safety issue, suggesting that those who disagree with the program are anti-safety. She said that as a resident and as a parent, she wants safe sidewalks but that the issue is far more complex, and she wants the city to make more strategic budget decisions given the scale of the sidewalk issues citywide.

“We’re also not the only municipality to struggle with the issue of infrastructure, taxation and finding that balance,” O’Connor said. “But in an area that is already becoming a bedroom community for Kansas City and Topeka and that struggles sometimes with the high cost of living compared to those other areas, let’s not compound the issue by trying to put a Band-aid on a systemic issue.”

Farthing told commissioners that neighbors wanted the program to be halted immediately so that the city could consider four aspects. In addition to redefining what constitutes a sidewalk hazard, they proposed that the city create and prioritize zones for repair on the basis of the extent and severity of the hazards. They also asked that the city allow the contractor to repair residential sidewalks by grinding and patching, instead of just a full panel replacement. Lastly, they propose that the city use money it has budgeted for sidewalk repair to fund annual sidewalk initiatives each year.

Farthing and other neighbors told the Journal-World that there’s no reason the zones have to be so large and that the city should move through zones in an order that reflects the greatest need. Following Farthing’s comments to the commission, Mayor Lisa Larsen asked for city staff to put together a report for its next meeting about the problems the city has run into so far with the program and what has been done to mitigate them. Farthing said Larsen has also been out to their neighborhood on two occasions to listen to their concerns and view the sidewalks.

As part of its meeting Tuesday, the commission will receive the update, including several letters from residents in northwest Lawrence that detail some of their concerns. The commission previously planned to reevaluate the new program after the first year, and Soules said that though he didn’t think the half-inch deflection hazard would change, the city did need to better define what sidewalk deficiencies required fixing and how they must be fixed. He also said he thought it would be easier if property owners who wanted to use the city contractor could opt in, and then the city would handle the projects instead of having each individual property owner communicate with the contractor.

Soules said that already 181 sidewalks have been repaired or have been contracted for repairs, and more are getting done every day. Ultimately, Soules said he thought that the city was making progress on an issue that had not seen progress in years.

The Lawrence City Commission will convene at 5:45 p.m. Tuesday at City Hall, 6 E. Sixth St.


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