could change its practice of maintaining sidewalks to follow the letter of the sidewalk ordinance, which puts responsibility on homeowners' shoulders in certain situations.
The borough has worked on replacing lifted or uneven slabs of sidewalk since 2005, when an inventory by the borough's found 6,230 sidewalk slabs needed to be replaced.
Most sidewalks get damaged or lifted because of tree roots, which leaves the borough with the option of either taking down the tree or shaving the tree roots. Replacing each slab costs about $75, and over the past seven years the cost of replacing damage sidwalks has grown from $100,000 to $275,000.
When the cause of the damage is tree roots, however, Engineer Vincent J. DeNave told the council at the Monday, June 11 meeting he finds himself "going back to the same houses I was at five years ago, because that tree is still growing."
The borough has a history of installing sidewalks around existing trees, and along Watchung Avenue. However, where those trees are the property of the borough, the practice may end in order to preemptively decrease the cost of sidewalk maintenance.
"Trees are going to have to come down," DeNave said, if only because of the continued expense. As Councilman James Collander said, "We can't have sidewalks being 25 percent of our capital budget every year."
DeNave said he was thought trees should be replaced, if they are cut down, but "we need to make sure it's the right species of tree," one without spreading roots that could potentially damage sidewalks.
The issue also impacts the Shade Tree Commission, Council President James Lonergan pointed out, since it would impact what kinds of trees could or should be planted, and where, especially when so many trees and branches came down in the .
DeNave also pointed out that common practice has been, when removing a sidewalk to trim roots of borough trees, "if the borough takes it out, the borough puts it back in, and that's not what the ordinance says. ... I think it's an inconsistency in what we actually practice, and I think it should be addressed." Instead if the slab breaks, which DeNave said is likely, the homeowner would have to pay to replace it.
Additionally, if a sidewalk has hazardous listing or another dangerous issue not caused by borough tree roots, DeNave suggested the borough begin alerting homeowners of the problem and giving them 90 days to fix the sidewalk.
"There's an enforcement component, where we have a liability component if we don't [cite the residents,]" DeNave said. "Our ordinance says we should be citing these folks if we see it. If we don't do that, I think that there is a certain responsibility on our part."
Councilman Len Resto said in the interest of fairness, since enforcing the letter of the ordinance would go against common practice, "maybe there's a middle course where we split it 50-50."
Councilman Vicki Fife said the cost to engage a contractor to replace sidewalks would be much more expensive for homeowners than for the town.
DeNave said the problem in that situation comes if homeowners do not pay, in which case "we become bill collectors and have to put liens on [the residents," and the borough would still be responsible for paying the contractor first and collecting funds from homeowners later. The liability for those sidewalks would be the borough's, as well.
"At the end of the day we have an ordinance we're not enforcing," Collander said, and "no council in the past has wanted to tackle that issue."
DeNave proposed conducting a new survey with attention on the causes of damages to the sidewalks. Afterward, the borough will go through the town by sections and investigate the sidewalks.
"We'll have to do a bit of a media blitz" and warn homeowners to "get your own contractor now, if you have a problem, or you're going to be hit" with a warning letter giving the owner 90 days to fix the sidewalk, DeNave said. He said he was happy to give a list of local contractors to homeowners, and to warn the contractors, "If you gouge the homeowners, we'll take you off the list."
The council agreed to change the ordinance to follow DeNave's suggestions.