Homeowners Can't Ignore Sidewalks
By Ann Cameron Siegal
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, October 11, 2003; Page F01
Often there is no safe way to get around them -- the cracks, mounding, gouges
and overgrowth that can make sidewalks hazardous.
When someone trips, stubs a toe, twists an ankle or has trouble maneuvering a
wheelchair or walker, the question arises: "Who's responsible for
If a public sidewalk abuts your property, you are. A property owner's
responsibility goes beyond keeping sidewalks free of snow and ice. A property
owner also is expected to take an active role in preventing sidewalk accidents
by performing basic maintenance and by alerting local authorities to possible
Basic maintenance is largely common sense. Regular sweeping keeps grass,
leaves and other debris from accumulating, thus avoiding slipping hazards. In
addition, grass and weeds should be prevented from growing between bricks or
concrete sidewalk panels and along the curb lines. Such vegetation hastens the
deterioration of walkways and gutters.
And don't just look down. Robert A. Brubaker, director of Metroped Inc., an
Alexandria-based advocate for walkers, devotes part of his Web site (www.metroped.org)
to pedestrian hazards that are "seldom addressed," including
overhanging branches and overgrown shrubs. Plants that encroach on walkways can
be just as hazardous as surface problems because they can force pedestrians to
step into the street to avoid scrapes and scratches.
Shrubs and branches should be cut back to the property line. Municipalities
have various rules that cover such plants. In Laurel, for example, the code
dictates that overhanging branches must be at least seven feet above the
In Alexandria, if city crews have to come out to trim a homeowner's plants,
the cost goes on the homeowner's tax bill, said Brett Sweeney, head of
maintenance in the city's Department of Transportation and Environmental
It may seem obvious what constitutes a tripping hazard, but municipalities
have very precise definitions. In Alexandria, for example, a hazard is any
deviation in grade of 1¾ inches, or any depression in which a high-heel shoe
could get caught.
In Laurel, Teddy R. Dulaney, the director of public works, said that only a
¾-inch deviation in grade or any crack more than an inch wide requires a
repair. One square foot of spalling -- when the top layer starts to crumble --
will also put a sidewalk section on the list for replacement.
In the District, there are no specific definitions. Tripping hazards are
decided case by case, said Bill Rice, spokesman for the D.C. Transportation
"We encourage people to call our citywide call center whenever they see
something that is a problem," Rice said. The report is supposed to be
logged; callers get tracking numbers to monitor the progress of repairs. (The
call center number is 202-727-1000.)
Montgomery County's Department of Public Works and Transportation Web site (www.dpwt.com)
has a calendar detailing when subdivisions are scheduled for sidewalk repairs.
The site also reports repair progress.
Trees and Tree Roots
Tree-lined streets are attractive, but tree roots are a common cause of
tripping hazards. The biggest culprits are trees planted between sidewalks and
curbs -- an area referred to as the utility strip because that's where power
lines and telephone poles are located. There's little room there for roots to
grow, so they go hunting for space, water and nutrients. They can grow
horizontally about 18 inches below the surface, buckling sidewalks in the
In Wellesley, Mass., trees are not allowed in utility strips because of the
lack of proper growing conditions, the possibility of damage by vehicles and
because "trees actually provide better shade when set back from the
road," according to the town's Web site.
Developers in Alexandria are experimenting with new measures to give roots
near sidewalks more favorable growing conditions. In the Carlyle development,
for example, continuous soil-filled underground tree troughs, parallel to the
curb, allow roots to expand more than in traditional 4-by-6-foot wells.
At the Samuel Madden Homes, a former public housing project that is being
redeveloped into mixed-income townhouses, a hybrid tree well is being tried. It
combines features of the tree trough with a cantilevered well around three sides
of the tree. Jeff Farner of the Alexandria Planning and Zoning Department said
the goal is to maintain the sidewalks for pedestrians while providing tree roots
as much soil as possible.
In Alexandria, about 2,000 linear feet of brick or concrete sidewalk are
repaired or replaced each year. Tripping hazards get priority.
On a recent Friday afternoon, when a two-inch differential in height between
adjoining concrete sidewalk panels in Alexandria's Del Ray neighborhood was
reported, the city sent a repair crew within an hour. The workers applied a
temporary cold-asphalt patch.
Such a rapid response is not always possible, city maintenance chief Sweeney
said, but "once we are aware of a problem, we have 72 hours to respond, but
try to take action within 24 hours."
Rice, in the District, said temporary repairs are made within a week and the
city tries to permanently resolve each problem within 25 days.
The cost of repairing or replacing sidewalks is usually included in municipal
budgets. Damage from age, cracks and tree roots is expected.
The District once required homeowners to pay half the cost of installing new
sidewalks because they were considered property improvements. The city dropped
that requirement last year, Rice said.
In Anne Arundel County, however, homeowners can be directed to "grade,
lay out, pave, repave, construct, reconstruct, repair, extend, widen,
straighten, or improve" public sidewalks abutting their properties, at
their own expense, when public safety and welfare are at stake.
Pam Jordan, the county's land-use spokeswoman, said that once the county is
notified of a problem, "we have to notify the property owner to make
repairs." The property owner has 30 days to comply, either by paying the
county to do the work or by hiring a contractor. It costs about $6.25 per square
foot to replace an existing sidewalk, Jordan said.
Exceptions to the policy of charging homeowners for repairs have been made in
large communities where sidewalks were widely deteriorating. Jordan said a
specially budgeted project repaired Glen Burnie's sidewalks without individual
homeowners being assessed.
Schedules for permanent repairs depend upon variables such as weather,
project backlog and funding.
Sidewalk materials and installation techniques play a key role in frequency
Brubaker, the Metroped director, said there are major problems with
decorative stone-face surfaces that spall or break out in chunks as they age.
Michael Haynes, a concrete technician for the city of Alexandria, said that
sometimes disintegration in a concrete walkway is caused by too much water in
Brick sidewalks, while often considered more attractive, are also more
expensive to install and more costly to maintain.
Sweeney said old brick walkways are less of a problem than newer ones because
they are weathered and worn and the corners have rounded off.
Newer brick sidewalks pose more of a hazard because they are still settling.
"As soon as a corner kicks up, it's a tripping hazard," he said.
Alexandria has a full-time crew monitoring and repairing the miles of brick
sidewalks in the city.
Slips and falls are commonly litigated. In determining liability there are
some basic questions: What or who created the problem? How long has the hazard
existed? Has there been reasonable time to repair?
If the hazard is very obvious, such as a large crack or mound in a pathway,
then the pedestrian is expected to use reasonable caution in avoiding it. Brick
sidewalks are assumed to be uneven, so again, the pedestrian is charged with
taking extra care.
Kevin Craiglow, spokesman for Nationwide Mutual Insurance Co., said it is in
the best interest of homeowners to properly maintain and see to the repair of
sidewalks bordering their property. While slips and falls are covered in most
homeowners' policies, there is greater liability if the issue is neglect, he
In Laurel, code states that homeowners and the city are held accountable for
such accidents, Dulaney said. But because the city maintains the sidewalks,
homeowners are probably off the hook if they notify the city that there is a
problem, he said.
The bottom line: Perform routine common sense maintenance and bring sidewalk
hazards to the attention of the proper authorities.
"We can't know about every crack or low-hanging branch," said
George McAndrews, Alexandria's assistant city attorney. "If we don't know
about them, it's impossible to fix them."
© 2003 The Washington Post Company
Version (partial text but with photos)