by Terry Rogers
Over the past few months, Milford City Council has discussed the issue of sidewalk repairs throughout the City. Since 1800s, it has been the responsibility of the property owner to repair or install sidewalks and curbs adjacent to their property. Recently, property owners with sidewalk issues, such as cracks, uneven pavement or other issues, were sent letters from the City explaining their options. This includes repair or replacing the sidewalk themselves, hiring a contractor tor repair or replace the sidewalk, contacting the City to have their contractor make the repair and reimburse the City or do nothing. If they chose to do nothing, the City will repair the sidewalk and require the property owner to reimburse them for the repair.
“If the property owner chooses to use the City contractor, they can pay the cost plus 10 percent immediately,” City Manager Eric Norenberg said. “They can also choose to make 60 equal monthly payments for the cost plus 10 percent. If the property owner does not pay, the City will place a lien on the property to be satisfied when the property is sold.”
Mark Whitfield, Director of Public Works, cautioned Council about making the sidewalk ordinance less restrictive. He was aware that people did not see a need to fix a sidewalk with a small gap or rise, but the Americans with Disability Standards Act require sidewalks with a gap of one-quarter inch to be addressed. Failure to require the repair could result in the City facing litigation for violations of the Act.
“The ordinance and repair criteria are very similar to other cities and town ordinances throughout the state,” Whitfield explained. “It is not too restrictive and it has been tested in many areas and I believe it will hold up in court. The issue we are facing is getting bids from contractors because they are bidding without knowing how many sidewalks they will be replacing. A homeowner has 90 days to make the repair so the contractor is on hold until that 90 day timeframe ends.”
Whitfield recommended that the City cover a portion of the cost of sidewalk repairs initially in order to get them repaired with the homeowner taking over the repair after that is completed.
“I agree that the ordinance states the homeowners are responsible for their sidewalks,” Councilman Todd Culotta said. “But to all of a sudden come up with a plan to fix sidewalks and require property owners to fix their sidewalks, then to tell them that if they are not repaired, the City will do it for them and bill them seems harsh. I appreciate the work and time that has been put into this project and the many inspections, but I feel this is a form of the City regulating themselves into the community.”
Councilman Culotta pointed out that the City has many sidewalks they are responsible for fixing that are in need of repair and felt that should be done first. Once that is completed, the City can go to the homeowners or change the ordinance.
Norenberg explained that the sidewalk discussion had been ongoing for several years. Whitfield stated that, in terms of water meter pits, street signs and utility poles, only 10 percent of the entire sidewalk project were impacted. He also pointed out that the City could go repair a block with a meter pit and find adjacent sidewalk that was damaged but the responsibility of the homeowner. It may be difficult to explain why the City didn’t just fix the other sidewalk at the same time.
“I believe that there will be times an arrangement needs to be made with private homeowners,” Councilman Dan Marabello said. “Perhaps an extended period be offered or an initial deferment, such as payments not required until the twelve month after the work is done.”
Norenberg stated that this ordinance has been in place for many years and that staff was asked a few years ago to get moving on sidewalk repairs. A review of other cities and towns found that they have similar requirements. Councilman Culotta said it appeared that the City had this discussion 10 years ago and could not afford to fix sidewalks so they made homeowners responsible.
“This ordinance has been in place for decades,” Whitfield said. “It actually dates back to the 1800s. There was an update about ten years ago, but it had nothing to do with the homeowner responsibility.”
Councilman Jason James thanked Whitfield for his work in putting together the information, noting that the history was very helpful.
“Milford is booming and we need to beautify,” Councilman James said. “This means the sidewalks have to be fixed. I am a true proponent that you don’t point and say, you lead. Let the taxpayers understand that Milford is fixing sidewalks. While the sidewalks are being repaired, some situations are going to be encountered whereby a private homeowner is going to be responsible. It is beneficial to the entire City to do it all at once. I do not think it can be separated. I am becoming afraid of future cost escalations.”
City Solicitor David Rutt explained that, under Delaware law, the City had the right to enact this type of ordinance unless it is prohibited by Charter. He explained that the ordinance is not discretionary as the word “shall” is used throughout. If someone was injured on a sidewalk, the City could face litigation for not enforcing the ordinance.
“Homeownership means you are responsible for maintenance,” Councilman Mike Boyle said. “People don’t want to pay but there is no choice. We need to move forward and start with those streets that lead to schools for safety reasons. The City will be repairing their sidewalks and, in conjunction, a homeowner will be given some options. I feel offering a homeowner 60 months to pay it off, noting that someone with five blocks to repair would pay $20 a month.”
Council voted to move forward with the process, sending a letter with funding options and a deadline to property owners who need to repair sidewalks and to address any City-managed sidewalks. Councilman Culotta cast the only no vote as he felt the ordinance needed to be changed rather than require homeowners to repair their own sidewalks. The letter to be sent will be approved by Council before it is mailed to homeowners.
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