Lawrence City Commission agrees with changes to sidewalk policy, but asks for additional improvements

photo by: City of Lawrence

Members of the Lawrence City Commission meet for a study session, Tuesday, Sept. 10, 2019, at City Hall.

Lawrence city commissioners said they were generally pleased with changes city staff proposed for its sidewalk repair policy, but some still said they wanted to see additional improvements and data.

As part of its work session Tuesday, commissioners provided feedback to city staff regarding the administrative policy, which garnered strong opposition when initiated this spring in northwest Lawrence. Mayor Lisa Larsen thanked the residents who came forward with their concerns and city staff for acknowledging issues with the policy. Larsen said she thought the policy would continue to get better as the program expands to additional sections of the city.

“I think we’ve owned up to some of the issues that we’ve had,” Larsen said. “And we’re going to come up with a solution and we’ll continue to get better, I think, with each phase that we do this.”

Many homeowners objected to the city’s requirement that they pay for repairs to sidewalks that were on city property and voiced concerns about how the city enforced those requirements. City staff did not propose changes to the underlying ordinance requiring that adjacent property owners pay for sidewalk repairs, but did propose changes to address various complaints, including a lack of a clear appeal process, a complicated process for opting into using the city contractor, and unclear definitions regarding which sidewalk defects required repairs, among other concerns, as the Journal-World previously reported.

Regarding the definition of sidewalk hazards requiring repair, City Manager Assistant Brandon McGuire told commissioners that city staff tried to narrow down the descriptions so that defects could be observable and measurable with simple tools, such a tape measurers and levels. McGuire said the inspection criteria were not perfect, but that the city would continue to refine those definitions.

Under the revised policy, the city identified eight defects that constitute a hazard: a vertical separation greater than half an inch; a horizontal separation greater than half an inch; deterioration of sidewalk panel due to spalling, scaling, cracking or delamination; peaking or dipping of adjacent sidewalk panels such that the peak or dip in relation to the established sidewalk grade is greater than three inches; vegetative obstruction; American with Disabilities Act access ramp defect; broken, missing or loose bricks; and inconsistent sidewalk cross slope.

Larsen said she still had concerns about the city’s sidewalk hazard criteria, and that the city needed to be more definitive about what defects constitute a hazard and therefore must be fixed under the policy. Vice Mayor Jennifer Ananda agreed, saying that the policy is very specific in some areas and very vague in others. Ananda said that all the criteria should have some sort of minimum standard or else would be very subjective.

Commissioner Matthew Herbert said he got a lot of negative feedback from homeowners about which sidewalk defects the city deemed hazardous, some of which he agreed with. Herbert said the city needed to focus its criteria on what truly creates a hazard and whether someone will be able to transverse the sidewalk safely or not. Herbert also said he understood that the program was not popular, but that he thinks it is addressing longstanding problems with the city’s sidewalks.

The ordinance requires all property owners — including homeowners, businesses and landlords — to pay to repair the sidewalks running along their property. The ordinance has been on the books for decades, but the city did not strictly enforce it until this spring. The ordinance was enforced using a process laid out in the policy, which was created last year. In addition to outlining the inspection criteria and process, the policy calls for the city to repair sidewalk defects caused by its infrastructure, such as manholes and street tree roots, and also created a financial aid program for low-income homeowners and those who have more than one sidewalk adjacent to their home.

Commissioner Leslie Soden, however, said she still thinks the city took the wrong tactic and that it should not make property owners pay to replace and repair sidewalks that are on city property. She said that to her, a good, healthy city takes care of its sidewalks and it would be more efficient to bring all the sidewalk repairs in house.

Ananda also continued to express hesitancy about the approach and asked for more information to consider whether the city should take over responsibility for sidewalks in the future. She said she wanted to see data about the estimated cost to the city and to the taxpayer to support the financial aid program and what approach is more cost effective for the community.

“What is going to have the least financial impact on them?” Ananda said. “Do we want neighborhoods and the folks who can afford to fix their sidewalks to do that so we can subsidize folks who can’t? Or is it more cost effective in the long run for the majority of our residents to increase property taxes in some way or other, inevitably, to cover the cost of the city taking on that infrastructure and that liability?”

City management can make changes to administrative policy without approval from the City Commission, but city staff brought the proposed changes to the commission to get its feedback.

City Commission Work Session 09/10/19

Related stories

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

June 1 — Northwest Lawrence residents ask city to reconsider requirement that property owners pay for sidewalk repairs

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