More than two years ago, San Diego’s City Council promised to fix the city’s illogical sidewalk policies that say property and business owners are responsible for fixing broken sidewalks outside their homes even though the city remains legally on the hook if someone trips and falls over the same stretch of sidewalk.

“We want to revamp the policy in such a fashion that it works,” City Councilman Mark Kersey said at a June 2013 Council meeting.

Fast-forward to now, and the policies still stand.

Kersey, who represents the city’s northeastern communities and is chairman of the Council’s infrastructure committee, said the slow pace of reform doesn’t reflect the work that’s been done.

Earlier this year, the city completed its first-ever review of all the sidewalks in San Diego, which found almost 80,000 locations with significant cracks, lumps or other problems. In the spring, infrastructure committee members reviewed sidewalk policies from other California cities. The whole Council is scheduled to discuss the issue next week.

“It’s a like a lot of these problems,” Kersey said. “A lot of these problems have built up over time and we want to get this right.”

We Stand Up for You. Will You Stand Up for Us?

Kersey hopes a policy change will happen this fall. So what would the new rules look like?

In San Jose and Sacramento, two cities looked at by the Council, property owners are largely responsible both for fixing the sidewalks and for any legal issues that may arise when people fall.

Kersey said he is inclined to support a new policy that makes property owners responsible for legal problems, but only after the city helps pay to fix existing sidewalk cracks.

“I firmly believe given the absolutely horrible condition of some of our sidewalks, the city should share in the cost of repairing those,” Kersey said.

This is no small task. The sidewalk review found the cost to repair all the problems was $46.4 million, roughly the equivalent of what it takes to run the city’s libraries every year. The city’s total infrastructure debt is at least $1.7 billion.

Kersey said funding for sidewalk fixes could be rolled into a 2016 infrastructure ballot measure he’s been talking about for a while. The clock has been ticking on that and it might be overtaken by a parallel effort to deal with infrastructure concerns region-wide.

There’s been little public evidence the city’s infrastructure ballot measure discussion is anything but moribund. But Kersey said lots of things are happening behind the scenes.

“Rest assured, we are working very diligently on this,” he said.

This week, the city was reminded of what happens if officials don’t fix sidewalk problems. The city agreed to pay out $300,000 to two people who tripped in North Park three years ago.

    This article relates to: Government, Infrastructure, Streets and Sidewalks

    Written by Liam Dillon

    Liam Dillon is senior reporter and assistant editor for Voice of San Diego. He leads VOSD’s investigations and writes about how regular people interact with local government. What should he write about next? Please contact him directly at or 619.550.5663.

    R Kidding
    R Kidding subscriber

    Hmmm ... let's see ... if property owners are responsible for sidewalks, does that mean that they can fence their sidewalks off from public use in order to remove their liability?

    Greg Martin
    Greg Martin subscriber

    Property owners have a requirement to build and maintain sidewalks along their properties, a requirement that should exist.  Why shouldn't they assume the liability when they don't maintain their sidewalks and why shouldn't they be billed by the city for repairs if they don't make necessary repairs in a reasonable period of time?

    What are the city's responsibilities as far as lighting?  One of the big issues with lack of lighting is that it's nearly impossible to see the issues with some sidewalks at night until one trips over them.

    And are any repairs that are done going to be real repairs?  What too often passes for sidewalk "repairs" now is to dump a pile of asphalt on it and call it good.  That's not nearly good enough.

    Omar Passons
    Omar Passons subscribermember

    One question: I didn't see where they agreed to change the policy to make it no longer the property owner's responsibility, just that they were going to fix the system. It's not clear to me that the fix is actually shifting sidewalk responsibility entirely to the city.  That may be the case, but it might also be the case that taking on 5,000 miles in sidewalk maintenance obligations is not the best use of city resources.  I'd like to see a few options and a policy rationale put forward for why one option is better than the others.

    Derek Hofmann
    Derek Hofmann subscribermember

    @Omar Passons Maybe the responsibility of sidewalk maintenance, and liability for lack thereof, should be given to the neighborhoods, because it doesn't make sense that wealthy, sprawling neighborhoods with more sidewalk per capita should be subsidized by poor, compact neighborhoods of apartment buildings and small houses.

    tarfu7 subscribermember

    @Derek Hofmann What do you mean by giving responsibility for sidewalk maintenance to "the neighborhoods"? Does that mean the property owners? Or the City of San Diego? Last I checked "neighborhoods" don't have infrastructure budgets.

    Gayle Falkenthal APR
    Gayle Falkenthal APR subscriber

    @tarfu7 @Derek Hofmann Many newer neighborhoods DO have infrastructure budgets. I pay Mello-Roos fees and HOA fees where I live in Scripps Ranch in a single family home. Almost always, Mello-Roos is found in newer neighborhoods and subdivisions built between 1994 and the present. This can fund roads as well as schools, libraries, police and fire protection services, or ambulance services. HOA fees are not limited to townhome/condo complexes. I cough up about $2,000 in additional payments between the two annually. 

    Note to Liam: It might be worth exploring whether there are sidewalk repairs being done via Mello-Roos funding in those neighborhoods, versus neighborhoods without this funding mechanism.

    tarfu7 subscribermember

    @Gayle Falkenthal APR Thank you for the info. Who manages the Mello-Roos revenues? Is it administered by the City of SD or another public agency? And I assume private contractors actually perform the infrastructure work? Who manages those contracts? 

    My point is that whenever you're dealing with public money and public infrastructure, you need some type of quasi-public agency to administer it. Maybe I'm wrong, but it sounds like Derek is suggesting that we take responsibility for sidewalks away from the City of SD, and instead create 40+ new "agencies" so that every neighborhood can manage their own sidewalk budgets and repairs. 

    Hyper-local control like this would certainly offer some benefits, but it would also create a massive, decentralized bureaucracy with high administrative costs.

    Gayle Falkenthal APR
    Gayle Falkenthal APR subscriber

    @tarfu7 These are managed by Community Facilities Districts (CFDs), and yes, it's certainly a hyper-local control system. It is organized under the County of San Diego Auditor & Controller's office. This is the complete list. What a whopper, huh?

    I am surprised with the small number of CFDs in the City of San Diego. I'm in the Miramar Ranch North CFD. Several of the Poway Unified CFDs likely encompass the City of San Diego in areas like Rancho Bernardo and Pensaquitos. 

    These fees continue for the length of the bond financing purchased by them. Typically, the bonds are paid off in 20 years, but state law allows up to 40 years. Mine run 25 years, and I will stop paying them in four more years.