Over the years, massive tree roots have buckled the sidewalk in front of Deborah and David Martin's Woodland Hills home — creating a dream ramp for skateboarders, but an unsightly two-foot-high obstacle for pedestrians.
"We have no usable sidewalk," says Deborah Martin, "I imagine it would cost thousands of dollars to repair."
Traditionally, the city would pick up the tab for repairing the walkway because the now 100-foot tree was planted on a public easement.
But the City Council will consider a plan over the next few weeks to pass on all the costs for sidewalk repair - which could range from $3,000 to $5,000 - to homeowners like the Martins. That would not only increase their bills, but shift liability to homeowners for trip-and-fall incidents on sidewalks, likely raising homeowner insurance premiums.
Given the tough budget times, the City Council will consider repealing a 1974 ordinance that required the city to pay for sidewalk repairs caused by root damage from trees the city planted
Under the plan approved by two council committees last month, homeowners would be forced to replace the damaged pavement or pay the city a fee when they sell their property.
Councilman Bernard Parks, who chairs the council Budget and Finance committee and is spearheading the new plan, said the city should not have been footing the bill these past few years. Parks said the city had accepted responsibility for the repairs to curbs, driveways and sidewalks if the damage was caused by tree roots because its costs were reimbursed by the federal government.
"When that money dried up, the city never changed its policy of being responsible," Parks said. "In the last seven years, the city has spent over $100 million to repair over 500 miles of sidewalk and not made a dent in the sidewalk issue."
Neighborhood councils and Realtors are gearing up to fight the plan that would add thousands of dollars to homeowners' bills.
"It's the city's trees that have caused the problem - the city should pay for repairing these sidewalks," said Alice McCain, past president of the Van Nuys-based Southland Regional Association of Realtors and a member of the Northridge East Neighborhood Council.
Jim Link, head of the Southland Regional Association of Realtors, said his group believes tree roots from public easements are responsible for 90 percent of sidewalk damage in the city.
Opposition to the plan is growing now that word of it has spread to many communities and neighborhood councils, Link said.
"Very few of them indicated they were even aware the city was thinking of doing this, and they're not happy," said Link. "They feel they should have some input into this."
The Realtors group also maintains that transfer of responsibility for sidewalk repairs to homeowners would be unfair and could harm any real estate upswing.
"Current lenders, who own many properties through foreclosures, are already losing tens-of-thousands of dollars and will not assume the responsibility of sidewalk repairs," the Southland Regional Association of Realtors said in an e-mail seeking to galvanize community groups and property owners in opposition.
"Additionally, this shift in responsibility will inevitably create higher insurance costs to the homeowner, as liability will be greater due to `trip and fall' incidents, etc."
Parks confirmed that homeowners could wind up sharing in that liability.
"Depending on how the city sets this up, a resident or business owner could be in jeopardy of being responsible for the injury if they have been on notice ... to where they're told that the sidewalk is in disrepair and certain elements exist and they're put on notice to fix it," Parks said.
"If the city doesn't fix it, there could be some split liabilities, but the city is always going to remain partially liable for any injury in a right of way."
Parks said the city annually pays out between $4 million and $6 million in damages for those kinds of injuries.
But Parks argued that the cost of repairing the estimated 4,600 miles of city sidewalk that is currently deteriorated like the Martins' would cost Los Angeles $1.2 billion - almost twice the budget deficit.
Noting his home belonged to his grandparents, Martin said he saw the ash tree blossom into its enormous presence over the years. City maintenance workers have examined the uprooting, and their solution was to pour asphalt over the broken concrete.
Martin said he would like to see the city repair the sidewalk by creating an alternative, such as perhaps a gradually sloped concrete ramp - something the city Bureau of Street Services has done in the past.
"We don't want to lose the tree," he said. "So I don't think we would want any kind of repair that would involve damaging the tree."