City, property owners at odds
By Bert Lehman
Part of the Ninth Street sidewalk remains closed, with no estimate when it will open.
The sidewalk was originally closed in April after a routine fire department inspection revealed the bottom of the concrete is exposed in the basement of the adjacent buildings. The basements extend underneath the sidewalk.
At the April 12 Clintonville City Council meeting, City Administrator Chuck Kell described it as a “dangerous situation.” It was also mentioned at that meeting that the estimated cost to make the proper repairs was just under $60,000.
Kell said the city ordinance states sidewalks are the responsibility of the abutting owners. He said according to the ordinance the owner who has a sidewalk that needs to be replaced has 20 days to fix it once the city notifies them.
If the sidewalk isn’t replaced in that amount of time, the city can replace it and assess the cost to the owners of the abutting property.
May 10 meeting
Prior to a May 10 city council meeting an attorney representing the property owners contacted the city. That communication included a temporary repair proposal as well as two long-term repair proposals. One of the long-term proposals was similar to the proposal recommended at the April council meeting.
Kell told the council in May that the repair cost estimates were somewhat less than the $60,000 figure discussed in April.
Clintonville City Attorney Keith Steckbauer responded to the attorney, stating the city is willing to work with the owners, but the city needed a report from a structural engineer.
At the meeting, the council asked the building owners on Ninth Street affected by the sidewalk issue to provide the city with an action plan within 14 days to make the proper repairs.
June 14 meeting
At the June 14 city council meeting, Steckbauer informed the council he was in contact with the attorney for one of the property owners, who had requested a two month extension.
He said he thought the property owners were struggling to find someone to approve their proposed repairs.
Kell also told the council he felt the issue needed to be resolved by winter.
The sidewalk issue was on the July city council meeting agenda, but scheduled to be discussed in closed session. During the discussion to approve the agenda, the item was removed from the agenda.
When the Clintonville Street Committee met on Tuesday, July 26, it had a lengthy discussion about the Ninth Street sidewalk issue.
Steckbauer informed the committee the city had received a letter from the attorney for one of the property owners. Steckbauer described it as an “aggressive response.”
The property owners are claiming the area under the sidewalk belongs to the city of Clintonville, thus the city is responsible for the repair costs, Steckbauer said.
If that were the case, he said that the city could theoretically condemn that area underneath the sidewalk and do whatever repairs are needed, and then assess the cost of the condemnation back to the property owners. He said the city has the legal ability to do that if it feels a particular property is benefiting from a condemnation.
“Long story short, I don’t know if the city necessarily right now knows what avenues to take in terms of who should pay for this,” Steckbauer said. “But the response they’ve given us it maybe makes us look at utilizing that statute. I don’t think we can do that until we have a structural engineer telling us what needs to be done in that area.”
Steckbauer recommended the committee approve conducting a title search to see if there is documentation of when or if the city built the sidewalk in question, and when it was attached to the building.
He also recommended the city hire a structural engineer to provide the city with a solution for the area.
“That’s incurring costs, but the landowners seem to be indicating they don’t feel their responsible,” Steckbauer said.
Toby Kersten, Public Works director for the city of Clintonville, said it was his opinion that the sidewalks are part of buildings, as they serve as a ceiling over part of the basement in the buildings.
He said winter is approaching and the situation has to be resolved before winter, when snow removal on the sidewalk will be required.
“If we look at what we have in place right now, the sidewalk is in default,” Kersten said. “It’s not safe. It’s a trip hazard. It’s falling apart.”
Steckbauer said he can’t advise the city to initiate the needed repairs, with the threat of a lawsuit, especially since a new sidewalk has to be attached to the property owners’ buildings.
The committee approved doing a title search, as well as having Kersten and Steckbauer find a structural engineer to look at the area in order to recommend a solution.
Permanent barricades around the sidewalk were also recommended by Steckbauer.
Kersten said he was open to ideas as to what to use as more permanent barricades.
Kell suggested walling off the sidewalk, so people can’t move through it, like larger cities do. He said it would probably also need a roof over it to keep water and snow out.
Kersten said that would have a more negative impact on the businesses than the current barricades.
Committee member Lance Bagstad asked if the city was doing enough with the current barricades to protect it from liability if someone walks on the sidewalk and it does collapse.
“Our fundamental protection is to make it as clear as possible to a reasonable person that that area is closed,” Steckbauer said.
Instead of walling up the sidewalk with plywood, Kell suggested using cattle gates. That way the businesses are still visible, but the fencing can’t be moved.
Kersten pointed out that occupants of vehicles could exit their vehicle only on the driver’s side because of the fencing.
Bagstad said he thought the inconvenience for those parking spots didn’t outweight creating a better barrier for the protection of people in that area, while still making the businesses visible.
Kersten said this would eliminate traffic into at least one of the businesses because it had no other way to enter the building.
“They haven’t given us an option,” Steckbauer said. “I think they’ve kind of put us in a situation where you have to do what you have to do to protect the public while we investigate it.”
The possibility of using steel plates to go over the top of the sidewalk at the business entrances was also discussed.
Steckbauer said he wouldn’t recommend that temporary fix unless a structural engineer approved it.
It was decided to leave the existing barricades up while the city hires a structural engineer to assess the situation.