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Slipping through the cracks

Gresham back off more aggressive code enforcement of sidewalk violations
by: Matthew Ginn, Property owner Tom Holland says he is concerned about the inconsistency of code enforcement in Gresham. Here, he shows some cracks marked in front of one of his rental homes on Monday, March 26.

It's a sunny but brisk Monday morning and Tom Holland, under a rain of pink cherry blossom petals, points out 18 white stripes spray-painted on the sidewalk in front of his two Gresham duplexes.

No, it's not vandals or a case of criminal mischief.

A newly hired Gresham code enforcement officer in late February and early March used paint to mark sidewalk cracks and other hazards - anything he ran a foot over and felt rise or fall - in Gresham's El Camino neighborhood and elsewhere.

According to Gresham code, property owners are responsible for maintaining sidewalks in front of their homes or businesses. But many residents don't know that. So they were understandably dismayed this month to receive letters stating that their sidewalks needed repairs, repairs that had to be made within 14 days.

Now Gresham's code enforcement division is taking a giant step back from its new more assertive approach to code enforcement and is putting the sidewalk violations on hold for a few weeks, said Eric Schmidt, interim director for the city's Community and Economic Development Department.

Last summer, the city turned away from its laid back, reactive, compliance-based approach to code enforcement in favor of a more proactive focus.

But in light of complaints from citizens about sidewalk code violations, Schmidt is calling a timeout.

Code enforcement officials need to sit down with folks from public works and development engineering to iron out code inconsistencies - everything from whether people have 90 or 180 days to use their sidewalk-repair permits to when pavement should be replaced, cracks sealed and bumped up pieces smoothed over.

'To make sure that we're all on the same page about how we're enforcing it (the code),' Schmidt said when discussing the need to put the violations on hold. '… What can we do in terms of a proactive program versus feeling like we're a heavy hammer coming in. … We have got to have some good common sense and judgment about how we do this.'

Internal coordination, Schmidt calls it.

A total of 28 Gresham property owners received letters of violation this month. Of them, 19 already have permits, said Jody Sandstrom, code enforcement program supervisor.

Many in the El Camino neighborhood have already made the repairs, or are in the process of doing so. Bright pink plastic surround sections of removed sidewalk awaiting freshly poured concrete.

Those who have not made the repairs will receive a letter from the city explaining why the process is on hold.

Many cities - Gresham, Portland and Vancouver among them - require that property owners maintain their sidewalks. Some cities tag a tax on water bills to pay for sidewalk repairs.

Last year, Gresham code enforcement recorded 47 sidewalk violations, compared to 83 so far in 2007.

Recent letters to homeowners with sidewalk violations say the violations must be 'corrected, removed or otherwise abated' within 14 days. Schmidt acknowledges that, 'People saw this and went, 'holy crap.' '

However, the actual repair work doesn't have to be done within that time, he said. By getting the repair permit, the case is considered resolved - at least from a code-enforcement perspective.

Guy Hill lives off Northeast Olvera Avenue and Southeast First Street east of Kane Road. He used his tax refund to pay for $1,200 in sidewalk repairs, including replacing two sections, grinding down two elevated sections, filling a crack and adding a sloped corner for wheelchairs.

When he got his violation letter, Hill said he agreed that the problems 'probably needed to be fixed.' Besides, his wife Cathy said, 'just get it fixed and take care of it.

'Well, what are you gonna do?' Hill asked rhetorically.

'Fight it,' replied Tom Holland, who owns two duplexes on the corner.

Holland is mad that some pavement problems are marked while similar issues on other sidewalks are not.

He disputes that some of the repairs are even needed. Pointing to one spot of spray paint marking where a root has ever so slightly elevated a slab of sidewalk, Holland says a door threshold is higher than that.

Holland paid $115 for a permit and resents having to turn around and spend more money fixing the sidewalks. Besides, if the city didn't require him to plant trees along the street, the sidewalks would be fine.

Even if he makes the repairs and removes the tree - which by the way would require another permit - he'd have to plant new ones, only ensuring future damage.

'They want me to repair their problems and pay to do it and walk away with a smile,' Holland said.

Who to call

For information about specific sidewalk repairs contact inspector John Standing at 503-618-2105; Public Works Construction Inspector Supervisor Ken Koblitz or 503-618-2628; or Jody Sandstrom at 503-618-2487.