Last year a number of Irvington blocks were hit with sidewalk repair notices. The assessments were based on complaints filed by someone going by the name “Dan Wallace.” Whether Dan Wallace is a real person, we don’t know as the city allows anonymous complaints and makes no effort to verify a person’s identity or determine how many complaints that person has filed.
After a brief lull during the rainier months, the city again began assessing sidewalk repairs. A number of neighbors attended our February ICA meeting angry that they were being assessed, sometimes, thousands of dollars in repairs, sometimes for conditions that they did not view as dangerous for pedestrians, such as concrete pads in easements and driveway cut-outs. The consensus was that Commissioner Novick needed to change the process so that a single individual could not file an inordinate amount of complaints, targeting a single neighborhood.
I sent Commissioner Novick a letter asking for an in-person meeting with the neighbors. I stated that “homeowners in Irvington, and perhaps in other neighborhoods, are being subject to financial burdens due to the whims of a single individual who may have motivations other than concern for the welfare of Portland’s pedestrian population. An issue which many of the Irvington residents have raised is that the sidewalk code violations, while technical violations, don’t actually appear to be hazards. Thus, homeowners are incurring substantial expenses for almost no benefit to the city infrastructure. The only entities who appear to be benefiting are the sidewalk contractors.”
In addition, we requested that a moratorium be imposed until the policy is changed to requiring some combination of multiple complaints before action is required and/or a cap on the number of complaints a single individual can make, as well as some way to ensure that the sidewalk contractors are not the entities encouraging the complaints. When being interviewed last summer about this very same issue, Commissioner Novick stated that he would look into changing the process. A year later, and nothing has been put into place.
We also requested that the city revisit what is considered to be a hazard. It is not reasonable to expect a perfectly smooth sidewalk and the current standards are overly onerous for homeowners while providing almost no benefit to the population at large.
Finally, we requested that the Department of Urban Forestry coordinate with the Bureau of Transportation to develop a plan to encourage saving our tree canopy when sidewalk repairs are necessary, rather than continuing with the current policy which appears to be encouraging the homeowners to remove large healthy trees and replace them with trees which, even when mature, will have a far smaller canopy and thus smaller positive environmental impact.
Commissioner Novick sent the following response: “Mr. Cole – this is a frustrating issue for us. We have been looking into it but keep on running into concerns such as “what if we didn’t respond to a complaint because it was the person’s 300th complaint and it turned out to be a valid complaint and someone was injured?” And we need to be mindful of ADA requirements as well. My chief of staff, Chris Warner, has been looking at this along with PBOT and can give you a more complete answer. I am sorry about the delayed response to your records request. I would be happy to meet with you if I had anything useful to say, but right now I don’t know that I do!”
After some back and forth with the Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT), I sent a public records request asking for all sidewalk complaints made in 2014 and 2015 through March. PBOT sent us an excel spreadsheet, listing all of the complaints. The spreadsheet made it clear that all of the recent assessments by the city were a result of the same Dan Wallace. Apparently, all of the complaints by Dan Wallace were filed last year and the city is investigating block by block.
While the records show that there are a few hypervigilant sidewalk complainers, none come close to the number of complaints filed by Dan Wallace. Nor does there appear to be another neighborhood hit with anywhere the number of complaints that Irvington was hit with. In fact, right outside the Irvington neighborhood boundaries there are sidewalks in far worse condition. Thus, there is a suspicion that Dan Wallace has some issue with the Irvington neighborhood. Or, maybe he walks only in Irvington’s boundaries and thus is unconcerned with the condition of sidewalks outside those boundaries.
City policy should not allow for citizens to target specific neighborhoods. I am sure that Commissioner Novick, who lives in the Multnomah Village neighborhood, would not like it if an unhappy constituent targeted his neighborhood for sidewalk repairs based on their dissatisfaction with his governance. Nor should someone be allowed to target a neighborhood for more insidious reasons. As we stated to Commissioner Novick, removing the anonymous complaint allowance and limiting the number of complaints that a single person can make in a year would help prevent a person from abusing the system for reasons which possibly have nothing to do with pedestrian safety. We also advise revisiting what condition should actually require a repair.
Also, I encourage everyone who has had to make a repair over the past year to contact Commissioner Novick and express your thoughts as to the current policy.