The Memphis City Council approved a two-month moratorium forcing sidewalk repairs at the beginning of May. In the meantime, attorneys are drafting new rules that may help some property owners fix their sidewalks without hefty price tags or getting hauled into court.
Sidewalk repair is the responsibility of Memphis property owners. That fact is thanks to a city law passed in 1967 that says owners of property abutting any public street are "required to provide and maintain adjacent to his or her property a sidewalk."
Property owners own the land under the sidewalk. But the city has a right to order a sidewalk be built on top of it and that it be maintained at the owner's expense.
Furthermore, the city has a right to order that sidewalk be kept clean of mud, weeds, grass, ice, snow, foliage, and tree limbs, that the sidewalk not become slippery, and even when and how sidewalks are to be swept (never between 7:30 a.m. and 7:30 p.m. and done "carefully").
City engineer John Cameron said the city does have a sidewalk inspector, but he said his office isn't actively patrolling for bad sidewalks. They come to the city's attention mainly through the Mayor's Citizen Service Center via the 311 hotline. If the city knows about a bad sidewalk but doesn't act on it, Cameron said, then the city becomes legally liable for accidents that may occur on the sidewalk.
"If property owners don't respond to our notice to fix the sidewalk, the city will have a contractor do the work," Cameron said. "Those costs will be documented and will be assessed as a lien on the property."
Those costs can range from $200 to more than $1,500, depending on the size of the sidewalk and the extent of the damage.
The city saw a spike in sidewalk-related lawsuits last year, Cameron said, and began issuing more notices at the beginning of this year. Those who didn't respond or couldn't pay were sued and ordered to appear in environmental court. The city council was then "inundated" with calls from angry property owners, according to their resolution to delay further notices.
"We want the statue repealed. Period," Memphis resident Jose Hill said to the council in a meeting last month. "People jaywalk, and I don't see us getting tickets for that. People litter, and I don't see us getting tickets for that. Now all of a sudden you want to come to people who have owned homes for 30 to 40 years and tell us you're going to put a lien on our house? No, sir."
A new sidewalk ordinance expected next month will likely make exceptions for property owners with financial hardships.