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City trees: More expensive and dangerous than they are worth?

A palm tree is silhouetted as snow accumulates on the hills above neighborhoods after major storms hit La Canada Flintridge, California in January 2010.
A palm tree is silhouetted as snow accumulates on the hills above neighborhoods after major storms hit La Canada Flintridge, California in January 2010.
David McNew/Getty Images

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The Los Angeles City Council is considering a plan to put homeowners on the hook for repairing city sidewalks. Almost half of L.A.’s sidewalks are in some state of disrepair, mostly due to tree roots pushing through the concrete and causing cracks.

Los Angeles City Councilman Bernard Parks told KPCC’s Patt Morrison that “since the 1970s, the city took responsibility for sidewalks that were broken by trees. Overtime they’ve taken responsibility for all sidewalks. The city has tried, over the last 20 years, to repair sidewalks. They’ve expended over $100 million over a 10 year period and fixed only 500 miles of sidewalks, and the sidewalks, about 10,000 miles of them, are in worse repair […] than they were before.”

If the proposal passes, homeowners will have 90 days to begin repairs and will be legally liable for “trip-and-fall” claims.

According to Parks, “the City of L.A. has been spending over $4 million a year on those types of incidents, and primarily because they have defunded the operation as far as inspection; they’ve defunded the operation in terms of repair and maintenance. The only thing you get from the city today is to put asphalt on a broken sidewalk. That does not stop a person from tripping and falling.”

If the situation is critical and emergency repairs need to be made, the city will remove the tree and send the property owner the bill.

Richard Close, the president of the Sherman Oaks Homeowners Association, said: “The problem is the city has not maintained the sidewalks, has not maintained the trees. Now that there’s a major problem, the proposal is to shift the responsibility to the homeowner. The problem is most homeowners cannot afford the cost of maintenance. And if someone trips, who’s going to get sued? Not the city, but the homeowner.”

Lisa Smith, a registered certified arborist, said the cost “to maintain the canopy can be anywhere from $200 a year upwards to $1,500 a year. As far as the roots, obviously as the tree is maturing, the root system is maturing and expanding, and these roots want to stay very superficial, right underneath the sidewalk where porous concrete is able to hold some moisture. So it kind of sets us up for long term hardscape damage.”

Councilman Parks said the city has been trying to pass this for six years.

“We have to contemplate the fact that, if the public doesn’t fix them and the city doesn’t fix them, and the sidewalks have a life of 80 years and many of them have passed the 80-year mark, who and how are we going to deal with the infrastructure of city sidewalks?" he said. "Do we let them crumble as they are today or do we make a concerted effort to bring them back to a standard that the city basically should require?”

Ralph from L.A. called into Patt Morrison and said he bought a building on Olympic and Crescent Heights eight and a half years ago.

"We pay a lot of property tax. In 8.5 years we have never once seen the city do a single thing […] When real estate was bringing in tons of money, they didn’t do anything. Now they say they’re broke, and they’re trying to put it on us,” Ralph said.


So, are trees worth it? Should the financial burden be on residents to care for trees the city planted? If the city can’t afford to maintain them, who should? The mayor of Los Angeles had a plan to plant 1 million trees, but given the cost, should he re-think that?


Lisa Smith, registered certified arborist

Bernard Parks, Los Angeles City Councilman, 8th District; chair, Budget & Finance committee

Nancy Freedman, chairwoman, Brentwood Community Council

Richard Close, president, Sherman Oaks Homeowners Association