It’s been talked about for months, but sidewalk violation notices will finally begin arriving in mailboxes, according to an update given during a recent Lowell City Council meeting.
For years, local officials have grappled with how best to address the issue of crumbling sidewalks in the city. A system involving rating sidewalks on a red, yellow and green scale was started in 2013 and then scrapped in 2016 when city leadership changed. In that year, a grant was also awarded from the LCTV Endowment Board to help pay for a sidewalk repair program, but it never got off the ground either.
Now, officials have decided the best way to address the issue is to simply notify residents they are in violation and give them a year to fix the problem. It was decided to start with the neighborhood east of the Flat River and north of Main Street, and problem sidewalks were marked by city staff in the spring.
This past summer, Lowell’s First Look spoke with current City Manager Mike Burns as well as former city managers Dave Pasquale and Mark Howe. We’ve been following the issue ever since, and here’s what you should know about the situation with sidewalks in the City of Lowell.
Law Clear about Sidewalk Maintenance
Requiring sidewalk repairs isn’t without controversy and has led to some confusion among residents. Since the sidewalk is considered the right-of-way, people often believe it falls to the city to maintain it.
However, the city ordinance states otherwise. Section 19-22 of the Lowell Code of Ordinances says:
All sidewalks, driveway approaches and retaining walls within the city shall be maintained in good repair, free from any buckling, unevenness, cracking, etc., which would pose a health or safety hazard to pedestrians, by the owner of land adjacent to or abutting the same.
What’s more, the ordinance states that the property owner is liable should someone be injured on a sidewalk, and the city is fully indemnified for these claims.
From a cursory look at other city ordinances, a variation of this language is used by many municipalities. Michigan’s Home Rule City Act is silent on the subject of sidewalks, but the state’s General Law Village Act includes this:
The council may require the owners and occupants of lots and premises to build, rebuild, and maintain sidewalks in the public streets adjacent to and abutting upon the lots and premises and to keep them in repair at all times, and to construct and lay the sidewalks upon such lines and grades, and of such width, materials, and manner of construction, and within such time as the council shall, by ordinance or resolution, prescribe, the expense thereof to be paid by the owner or occupant.
The General Law Village Act dates back to 1895 so there is clearly a long history of municipalities requiring sidewalk maintenance and repairs by its residents.
Enforcement Hasn’t Been Consistent
Lowell residents may be confused about their responsibility to maintain sidewalks, in part, because the requirement has been so sporadically enforced.
“There have been attempts to address sidewalks on a community-wide basis, but it’s been something we’ve been hot and cold on,” says Pasquale, who was the Lowell City Manager from 1987-2011 and then again on an interim basis from February-September 2016.
Some city councils have made sidewalks a priority while others seemed content to leave enforcement only for situations in which a complaint was made. That type of on and off approach to sidewalk enforcement is something the current city manager wants to address.
“There’s really been no consistency in what we do,” Burns says. “It’s something we need to improve on.”
Repair Criteria Updated in Spring
The most recent push to repair city sidewalks dates back to least 2013. That’s when Howe, who served as city manager from 2011-2016, formulated a system to rate sidewalks as red, yellow or green. Green sidewalks were in good repair while those graded red were in need of immediate attention. Yellow squares could be expected to require repairs in the near future.
Under the plan, residents with red and yellow sidewalks would be notified by letter. While red squares would need to be repaired or replaced, the idea with the yellow designation was to give residents advance notice of a potential problem, Howe says. Then, it wouldn’t be a surprise if and when a repair was needed in the future.
The details of this sidewalk plan, as well as the repair criteria, are still available on the City of Lowell website. There is also a 2013 sidewalk inventory posted, but it is unclear what the numbers listed mean.
In March 2018, an updated criteria was provided by Assistant City Manager Rich LaBombard. This criteria covers additional situations in which work may be required but also suggests possible repairs that will cost less than replacing the sidewalk entirely:
Problem: Vertical displacement of less than two inches (2”)
Suggested Repair: Possibly grind edges to eliminate trip hazards or replace section.
Problem: Vertical displacement of two inches (2”) or greater.
Suggested Repair: Replace section
Problem: Multiple vertical displacements caused by tree roots.
Suggested Repair: Remove section, Grind shallow tree roots, Replace section
Problem: Minor Spalling or Pop Outs – less than six square inches (6” sq.)
Suggested Repair: Apply bonding agent and vinyl concrete patch
Problem: Excessive Spalling or Pop Outs – greater than six square inches (6” sq.)
Suggested Repair: Replace section
Problem: Narrow Cracking – less than one inch (1”) wide by half inch (½”) deep
Suggested Repair: Apply masonry crack filler (if less than ½” wide), Apply vinyl concrete patch (up to 1” wide)
Problem: Wide Cracking – greater than one inch (1”) side by half inch (½”) deep
Suggested Repair: Replace section
Suggested Repair: Trim away or remove obstruction
Problem: Holding water
Suggested Repair: Remove adjacent soil to permit drainage, Replace section
Problem: Excessive sloping – greater than 8% vertical slope (greater than 1” rise over 12” run) or 2% cross slope (greater than 1” rise over 5’ run)
Suggested Repair: Replace section
Burns estimates approximately 10 percent of inspected sidewalks needs repair, and the city will not profit off fees from this work. “We’re going to waive the permit fee for a year, maybe more,” he says.
Financial Assistance Won’t Be Offered
While residents will not have to worry about fees for their sidewalk repairs, they shouldn’t expect any other financial assistance from the city. Although a 2016 grant from the LCTV Endowment Board gave the city $27,600 for a sidewalk replacement program, that money won’t go for repairs to walkways in front of private properties. The city has decided to use that money to repair city-owned sidewalks instead.
While the minutes from the LCTV Endowment Board meeting are missing from the city website, the board chair confirmed to Lowell’s First Look that the money was granted with the intention of helping residents cover repair costs.
“We didn’t want to commit public dollars to be on the hook if people didn’t pay [their portion],” Burns says. After a city council meeting earlier this year, LaBombard said that he wasn’t sure how to set up an assistance program that would benefit all residents. He was concerned about the prospect of helping residents in one neighborhood but then not having any money left to help those in another.
While Howe was no longer in the city manager position when the LCTV grant was approved, he envisioned a program in which the city would take the lead in negotiating a reduced price for repair work. “We were going to work with a single contractor and create economies of scale,” he says. Although the details hadn’t been completely ironed out, it was thought that the city would cover a portion of the cost for residents. The city would also pay for the repairs upfront and then residents could pay back the balance over time as part of a special assessment on their property.
It wouldn’t have been the first time a special assessment has been used to cover sidewalk repairs. Pasquale remembers that approach being used at least once. “The council very much wanted sidewalk improvements,” Pasquale says, “but there were some residents that pushed back.”
The compromise was that the city helped with a portion of the costs, using money out of the general fund. Some residents wanted to pour their own sidewalks too. In those cases, the city covered the cost of materials and the inspection while the homeowner provided the labor.
More commonly, grants were used for sidewalk construction and repair. “We started getting community block grants and used those for sidewalks,” Pasquale says. In that way, $55,000 was obtained to put in a new sidewalk on N. Center Street. The Lowell Area Community Fund also pitched in for walkways as part of implementing a Safe Routes to School program, and the Downtown Development Authority helped fund the installation of some sidewalks on M-21.
Issue Remains Controversial
It seems unlikely that the controversy regarding sidewalks will disappear anytime soon. Some have been critical of the city for not repairing its own sidewalks while forcing residents to fix theirs. Others point to a lack of sidewalks on the recent construction of S. Broadway. While sidewalks were added to a portion of the street, they don’t extend to Bowes Road.
Burns says the city is making it a priority to fix its own sidewalks. “If we’re forcing this on private [owners], we need to be held to the same standard,” he says. As for S. Broadway, Burns points to the possibility of damage from trucks using that route. “I’d hate to go all the way down [to Bowes Road] and then rip sidewalks out.” He’d rather wait to see how truck traffic maneuvers through the area first.
However, for residents who will be getting violation letters in the mail, there will only be so much time to wait and see. The ordinance is clear, and repairs will likely have to be made by next year. Otherwise, the result could be a civil infraction citation and fine at best or a property lien at worst if the city needs to come in and do the work itself.