Have a sidewalk in front of your home that has cracked or risen flags due to a city-planted tree’s ever-expanding roots? Good news: Mayor de Blasio is ending the practice of issuing violations to homeowners. Right now, there are 50,000 notices of violation in the system. These violations, if unpaid, can lead to a lien on a property, affecting the owner’s ability to get credit, sell the home, and more. The DOT will begin a process to determine, on a case by case basis, which of the existing violations and liens are the result of City trees.
If such trees are determines to be the sole cause, then all repair costs and interest on unpaid fees, outstanding violations, and liens will be waived completely, and the City will pick up the tab for the sidewalk repair and get the job done. No one is complaining.
This process may take some time, however. Tens of thousands of sidewalk inspections cannot happen overnight. “Our plan to repair all backlogged sites over the next three years, combined with new policies around sidewalk violations, will ensure that trees remain a boon to New Yorkers and not a burden,” said NYC Parks Commissioner Mitchell J. Silver, FAICP. While there are over 650,000 street trees in New York City, up until now the burden of sidewalk repair has rested squarely on the shoulders of property owners, and not the city.
That may seem unfair that the owner had no say in placement of such trees, however, any damage that might have been caused was their responsibility, through no fault of their own. Therefore, this announcement will surely be welcomed by many of NYC’s cash-strapped homeowners, forced by the city to perform costly repairs to sidewalk pavement that the city’s actions, though performed in good faith, was actually the cause of.
The Trees & Sidewalks program will begin with repairing 5,500 priority sidewalks. How much of a priority will be assigned? The projected date of completion will be in three years. According to Mayor de Blasio, “We’re not just fixing broken sidewalks – we’re fixing a broken system. We tripled funding for tree related sidewalk repair, but homeowners were still on the hook for problems they didn’t create. As a homeowner, I know how frustrating that is. Now, if a street tree causes damage, we’re taking care of it.”
This seems fair. No one can argue that owning a home can be costly. While some New Yorkers might not have had issue with paying thousands or more for repairs, in terms of their finances, not a single New Yorker really should have been burdened in this way. Up until now, most of us regarded this practice of fining homeowners for City trees as a given. It’s a welcome surprise that this is now changing. Of course, no homeowner, nor city agency, can predict whether tree roots will adversely affect concrete slab sidewalks. With time, roots may, or may not, cause the pavement to crack, rise, or become tilted.
While a sidewalk violation is a difficulty to homeowners, there was actually no fine involved. From NYC.gov’s website: “A sidewalk violation is an official notice issued by DOT stating that your sidewalk is defective. There is no fine associated with a violation. A copy of the notice is filed with the County Clerk and remains on file until the Clerk receives official notification from the City that satisfactory repairs have been made. A violation can complicate selling or refinancing your property.”
However, if the city hired a contractor to fix the sidewalk, under the old rules, the City Department of Finance would then bill the homeowner. In the past, property owners were granted 75 days to correct the situation on their own before the City took action, either through the DOT repair crews, or contractors hired to handle the repair. “The City’s willingness to accept responsibility will go a long way in relieving the anxiety many property owners feel when a city tree is planted in front of their homes,” Assembly Member Michael Benedetto noted.
“It is not okay for a homeowner to be consistently forced to repair their sidewalk at significant personal expense every few years as tree roots continue to grow. Thank you to Speaker Heastie and Mayor de Blasio for crafting a solution to this problem, and I look forward to an expedited and efficient implementation on behalf of homeowners everywhere,” said Assembly Member Jeffrey Dinowitz. While a step in the right direction, this new rule only applies to one, two, or three family homes. This prompted Assembly Member Charles D. Fall to state, “It’s critically important that we make sure small businesses, places of worship, schools and households with more than three residents also benefit from this new policy.”
“Fining homeowners for damage caused by city trees was wrong and I am happy that Mayor de Blasio has acknowledged the unfair policy and is changing it,” said Assembly Member Nicole Malliotakis. Many other City elected officials offered their comments. Council Member Peter Koo, Chair of the Committee on Parks and Recreation, had this to say, “Today’s policy change is welcome news to thousands of homeowners who for years have been forced to pay for tree damage that is largely out of their control. In the past, tree damage on sidewalks has unfairly saddled homeowners with the responsibility for trees they don’t own, and by righting this long-standing wrong, the city looks to finally provide some semblance of financial relief to property owners throughout the city. I look forward to working the Mayor’s Office, Parks Department and Department of Transportation on implementation.”
Of course, no City official had anything negative to say about this development. The longstanding practice of holding homeowners responsible was clearly unfair, and this welcome change will bring both financial, and emotional relief, to homeowners across the city. Trees are an important part of our urban NYC landscape, and moving forward, all residents hope to see more trees planted. Now, there’s no reason to experience a sinking feeling in the gut when the DOT crew pulls up in front of your house. Trees oxygenate the air, and add an aesthetic appeal, a touch of nature, to any city block. Here on Staten Island, without a doubt, many homeowners will be celebrating, as Our Island’s streets are often lined with century-old trees.
No one is arguing that raised or cracked sidewalks don’t present a real hazard to pedestrians of all ages; it’s not only about liens and insurance claims. No homeowner wants to find a person of any age sprawled out on the ground in front of their property because tree roots ruined the concrete. Damaged sidewalks present a real hazard, especially in the evening, when even younger people might not be able to easily see tripping hazards caused by uneven pavement flags.
A map of all sidewalk inspections and upcoming repairs may be accessed here (https://www.nycgovparks.org/services/forestry/tree-work) and request an inspection through the Trees & Sidewalks program here (https://www.nycgovparks.org/services/forestry/request/submit?tab=trees-and-sidewalks).