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Angelenos have lots to say about broken sidewalks, untrimmed trees

Readers have some good ideas; now let's hear from the mayoral candidates. City policy currently calls for trimming its 700,000 trees only once every 50 years.

September 19, 2012|Steve Lopez
  • A tree root cuts into a sidewalk on Sepulveda Boulevard near Manchester Avenue. L.A. has roughly 5,000 miles of damaged sidewalks.
A tree root cuts into a sidewalk on Sepulveda Boulevard near Manchester… (Gerald Klapman )

The people of Los Angeles, home to hundreds of thousands of unmaintained city-owned trees and roughly 5,000 miles of bad sidewalk, have spoken.

And they're not happy.

The most frustrating tale I heard was from a Woodland Hills couple who took matters into their own hands, only to find no end to the punishment for their good deed. But first, a review of the flood of response to my Sunday column, which featured city residents who'd rather volunteer to do their own survey of crumbling sidewalks than have the city go with a proposal to spend $10 million in taxpayer money on a three-year study.

"Better we should take the $10 million and start making repairs immediately," wrote Joe Grauman of West Los Angeles.

Charles L. Franklin, 85, said he's ready to take up his cane and donate his time for the public good.

"I see no problem in my being assigned, as a volunteer, to take pictures, write down addresses or whatever it takes for me to cover 50 blocks around my neighborhood," wrote Franklin, who lives in the Wilshire Corridor.

Maria Estrada, of El Sereno, said her complaints to City Hall about ruptured pavement got no response. So when she wants to take a stroll, she crosses the nearby border into Alhambra.

"Their sidewalks are beautiful and constantly being repaired," she wrote in an e-mail.

Several readers pointed out that Santa Monica uses rubberized pavers that don't crack and make it easier to deal with roots that rupture sidewalks. Dan Sundquist of Escondido said residents there have an app on their smartphones to report problems with sidewalks, potholes and graffiti. Others wondered why meter readers or other government employees couldn't add the task of identifying bad sidewalks to their routines.

And Mitch O'Farrell, running for L.A. City Council in the 13th District, alerted me to his proposal. Each council member would designate five of his or her 20 or so staffers, and the mayor would pick 15 people from his staff of roughly 100, to work with Public Works and neighborhood groups to conduct the survey and save $10 million. So there are a lot of good ideas out there, and then there's City Hall, which brings us back to Woodland Hills and to Bill and Karen Haigler.

The Haiglers had a city-planted sycamore tree that was rippling their sidewalk and dropping branches on their property and the street. They filed a tree-trimming request with the city and got a beauty of a form letter from the Bureau of Street Services.

Although it is the city's responsibility to maintain city trees, the letter noted, except in emergencies, "the current tree trimming cycle only permits each of the city's 700,000 trees to be trimmed once every 50.0 years."

Typo, you figure? They meant five years?

Guess again, grasshopper. For L.A. city trees, it's half a century between haircuts.

Of course, it wasn't the Haiglers' fault that the city had ill-advisedly allowed developers to plant thousands of sycamore, ficus and other trees with known root problems, then failed to look after them. That neglect has meant millions in public money spent each year to settle complaints against the city from people who fell on bad sidewalks, and it's also stuck homeowners with bills for damage to the sewer system caused by tree roots.

But the Haiglers weren't complaining about all that. They just wanted to fix an unsightly and potentially dangerous walkway. So they had the option of getting a permit to trim the tree at their own expense, or a permit to have it removed. They opted for removal, along with obtaining a permit to fix the sidewalk, both at their own expense.

Those jobs set them back roughly $2,000, but the Haiglers were still OK with things until they realized they weren't in the clear yet. The city informed them that they were required to buy, and plant, two trees to replace the one they removed. And they'd also have to install "linear root control barriers."

"Permittee shall plant…two (2) 24-inch box size Chinese Pistache (Pistacia chinensis) trees … where marked on the curb," said their permit.

While I was at their home, Mrs. Haigler called her neighborhood nursery to find out what a Chinese Pistache goes for.

"Two hundred seventy-five dollars each," she said, as Mr. Haigler wondered how much it was going to cost to have someone dig the holes and properly plant the trees, which I'm told don't have the same root problems as ficus trees and sycamores. The Haiglers said they were also told that if they didn't have room to plant both trees, they'd have to buy them anyway and donate one or both to the city.

"That's dumb public policy," said Mr. Haigler, who wrote a letter to Councilman Dennis Zine and is awaiting a response. In the letter, Haigler said he was "taking on the city's prior obligation to maintain the sidewalk and parking," in the interest of public safety, only to be assigned the added expense of planting new trees, which the city might not get around to trimming for 50 years.

Haigler, like his wife a retired engineer, said he felt slightly less annoyed after reading that the California Science Center has agreed to plant four times the number of trees it's chopping down to make way for delivery of the space shuttle Endeavour, along with maintaining the trees and offering scholarships to neighborhood kids. But still, he's not thrilled about his predicament.

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who has taken bows for his as-yet unmet promise to plant a million trees, maybe should have focused on trimming the trees we've already got and fixing the sidewalks they've destroyed.

But he's almost out the door, and the next mayor will inherit the debacle.

OK, mayoral candidates. Got any fixes?

steve.lopez@latimes.com

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