Nov. 25, 2015 By Laura A. Shepard
Assemblyman Michael DenDekker is looking to end a regulatory snafu that can ultimately cost homeowners thousands of dollars.
DenDekker is proposing new legislation that would absolve homeowners of their responsibility to fix sidewalks cracked by city tree roots and hold the city responsible instead.
Sidewalk damage caused by trees poses “a pretty significant problem” in the Jackson Heights area, Alexandra Casey, an aide to DenDekker, said. Several weeks ago, the Assemblyman invited representatives from the Department of Transportation and the Parks Department to tour his district and see the damage first-hand.
A week later, most residents on 77th Street between 31st and 32nd Avenues received violations for cracked sidewalks, which can cost more than $1,000 per infringement.
Nearby Monsignor McClancy High School was hit with more than $200,000 in fines for cracked sidewalks, as the school is “responsible” for two square blocks’ worth of sidewalk.
“All of my neighbors hate me now,” DenDekker said.
“It’s an ongoing problem,” Casey explained. “Sidewalk damage is almost always caused by trees.”
The underlying issue is that the DOT and Parks both have jurisdiction over the damage.
The DOT issues violations for the damage, giving the homeowner 45 days to pay the fine for sidewalk damage. Meanwhile, the Parks Department has a program to pay for sidewalk damage caused by trees, but the program has a two-year waiting list and only “really bad” ones qualify for the service, DenDekker said.
DenDekker noted that one resident who recently received a violation applied for the Parks Department program a year ago and is not scheduled to have his sidewalk fixed until June 2016.
Once the city issues the violation, homeowners are liable if someone trips or falls on their property. Therefore, homeowners often rush to pay contractors thousands of dollars the moment they receive violations. Many homeowners in the district are seniors living on fixed incomes.
DenDekker said he hopes to rectify the problem in Albany because the City Council is not taking any action.
“The City Council could do it tomorrow,” he said. “They can say they want to repeal that section of the law.”
The laws holding homeowners responsible for damage caused by city trees “date back to the [Robert] Moses era” and “no other city in the state has this issue,” DenDekker said. For example, in Albany, the city pays to fix the sidewalks.
DenDekker acknowledged that New York City is unlikely to do so because repairing all of the sidewalks may cost hundreds of millions of dollars. However, he also pointed out that the city has billions of dollars worth of surplus, which can be used to provide stable, well-paying construction jobs.
“This administration has a guy who likes to talk about Vision Zero,” DenDekker said, referring to Mayor Bill de Blasio’s initiative for pedestrian safety. “Shouldn’t these same pedestrians be safe walking on the sidewalk?”
DenDekker hopes his bill will compel the city to change its policy. The bill already has 11 cosponsors, but DenDekker said the government is in “holiday mode” now, so in two weeks many more will likely sign on because all districts include homeowners and property owners.
The city legally considers sidewalks to be city property, much to the dismay of one resident who spent $7,000 to fix his sidewalk, only to have the Parks Department rip up several sections to plant new trees.
“We want this administration to admit there’s a problem,” DenDekker said.
He also pointed out that 885 claims, totaling $60 million, were paid out by the city between January 2013 and November 2014. The average claim was $67,000, but the largest was $2.5 million. These were for cases where the homeowner had not received a violation so the city was held responsible for the tree damage.
“Why a lawyer hasn’t done a class action lawsuit is so surprising to me,” DenDekker added.