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Bill Would Cut Some Bureaucracy From Tree Root Damage Claims In Pittsburgh

Homeowners would no longer need to have Pittsburgh City Council approve reimbursements for damage to sidewalks from city tree roots under new legislation introduced Tuesday.

Sponsoring Councilman Dan Gilman said his bill could reduce the time of the reimbursement process by about two months through a special exception to the rule that requires council approval for any spending greater than $2,500.

Pittsburgh homeowners are responsible for repairing any damage inflicted by city-owned trees upon city sidewalks that run across their property.

For at least 20 years prior to 2014, the city compensated those residents at $4 per square foot of damage. In late 2014, City Council doubled the reimbursement rate to $8 per square foot, increasing the city’s share of the burden – still usually less than half of the total cost, according to Councilwoman Darlene Harris.

But that increase has had unintended consequences: the larger payouts have often crossed the $2,500 threshold, which requires council's approval.

Gilman called his new legislation a “meat and potatoes” bill to streamline the process for residents.

“The process for reimbursement is cumbersome," Gilman said. "It currently has to go through City Council, which can add up to about two months to the timeline, and we always approve them.”

Currently, the process is labyrinthine: residents whose stretches of sidewalk have been disrupted by city-owned trees must first contact the Forestry Division to have them trim the roots before any repairs can be made. After having a contractor repair the damaged sidewalks, the residents must then contact the city law department, which then dispatches a public works team to double-check the repairs. The field inspectors then report back to the Law Department, which then sends the payout to City Council for authorization if it's greater than $2,500. Gilman’s bill cuts out the last step.

He said he'd never seen council reject a reimbursement for tree root damage.

“Usually, if there’s something false with the claim, that would get caught in the law department or in the field inspection," said Gilman. "By the time it gets to council, it’s a given.”

At a council meeting earlier this month, Danielle Crumrine of Tree Pittsburgh said widespread sidewalk damage was inevitable, given the city’s planting practices over the past 60 to 80 years.

"Now they’re planted in much bigger planting beds, where before you would see these 3-by-3 planting areas, and of course the tree is going to start lifting the sidewalks,” Crumrine said.

But Councilwoman Theresa Kail-Smith said she thinks it’s unfair for city residents to foot the bill for damage done by city trees in the first place.

“I think that people understand that if it’s going to lift the sidewalk and the city planted it, then the city should be responsible for the sidewalk," Kail-Smith said. "Or you should allow the homeowner to do what needs to be done to make sure they can afford whatever repairs have to come down the road.”

Council will debate Gilman’s legislation on March 30.