The City will stop issuing violations to homeowners for damage caused by street trees. On September 10, 2019, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced the City will stop issuing violations to homeowners for damage caused by city street trees. Over the next three years, the Department of Transportation and Parks Department plans to boost sidewalk repairs under the Trees and Sidewalks program to address approximately 5,500 priority sites throughout the City.
The New York City Department of Transportation inspects sidewalks throughout the City and issues violations to property owners if the sidewalk is found to be damaged or defective. When a sidewalk is damaged by a city tree, the property owner has two options: they can repair it themselves with the help of a contractor or they can have it repaired through Parks’ Trees and Sidewalks program.
Previously when DOT noted a sidewalk problem, whether a tree or non-tree issue, the homeowner would receive a notice of violation. No monetary penalty was ever assessed to a homeowner with the notice of violation; however, if the violation was not addressed, the City would generate a lien on the property. Now, when damage to a sidewalk due to city trees on a one, two and three-family property is at issue, the City will stop issuing violations and imposing liens on that property.DOT and the Parks Department will still inspect for dangerous sidewalk conditions but the City, not the homeowner, will be responsible for fixing them if they are exclusively tree-related.
DOT will review approximately 50,000 existing notices of violation to determine which were caused exclusively by street trees and cancel the lien for any that meets the criteria. If the homeowner of the qualifying property is selling or refinancing their home, the City will expedite this re-evaluation. The review and cancelation of tree-related violations and liens will only apply to active and futures cases and homeowners who may have paid personal, out of pocket expenses to have their sidewalk fixed should not expect to be reimbursed by the City.
Because the City has a duty of reasonable care with respect to its park and street trees, liability becomes an issue when a city tree’s root(s) cause sidewalks and streets to become uneven and unsafe. As a general rule, a landowner has no affirmative duty to keep public sidewalks in front of their properties safe or passable. The duty to maintain public sidewalks lies with the government generally and the City specifically in the five boroughs.
At Wednesday’s press conference DOT noted that liability in tort actions as a result of mishaps from city trees affecting sidewalk conditions will stay with the city, although it is not clear if this liability will remain with the city for one-, two- and three-family residential properties, or for all landowners generally. You can read more about tort liability for injuries involving city trees here.
The City plans to triple the amount of money to address sidewalk problems because of the severe sidewalk issues that were clearly the City’s responsibility. The Mayor provided an estimate of $14 million a year through 2022 to fix all sidewalks damaged by City trees.
Mayor Bill de Blasio stated, “Starting today, if a tree causes damage to the sidewalk, the City of New York will take responsibility.” De Blasio apologized that for so many homeowners, “[t]he reality is they just didn’t have $1,000, $2,000, $3,000 to fix the sidewalk . . . This never was the way things should have been, this burden should never have been put on homeowners to begin with.”
State Assembly Speaker Carl E. Heastie noted, “This has been a huge quality of life concern for my constituents who have invested their savings in purchasing a home, only to be hit with this liability through no fault of their own. The problems associated with these trees became very apparent as I have been knocking on doors and visiting with constituents. I am glad that the Mayor de Blasio has recognized this issue and together we have developed a solution to take the burden off these homeowners.”
NYC Parks Commissioner Mitchell J. Silver, FAICP stated, “Our more than 650,000 street trees are a tremendous resource to the city, but over the decades root growth has caused conflicts on our city’s sidewalks. 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. We’re thankful for the support from Mayor de Blasio and our partnership with NYC DOT to find a path forward on this issue.”
DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg stated, “DOT works with property owners to make our sidewalks safe, but when City-owned tree roots are the culprit, homeowners should not be liable. We will review our records for violations and liens that can be canceled as we work closely with Parks on this common-sense initiative.”
By: Abby Cannon (Abby is a CityLaw intern and a New York Law School student, Class of 2020.)