December 11, 2002
RESPONSIBILITY FOR REPAIRING SIDEWALKS
By: Kevin E. McCarthy, Principal Analyst
You asked for a description of the law regarding the responsibility for the repair of sidewalks, specifically whether a municipality can require a property owner to pay for such repairs. Your question was prompted by a call from a Bristol resident who was subjected to such a requirement. We have enclosed OLR report 99-R-0355, which addresses the related issue of a property owner's liability for injuries occurring on a sidewalk abutting his property.
The Office of Legislative Research is not authorized to provide legal opinions, and neither this memo or the one we have enclosed should be considered as such.
The law does not appear to allow municipalities to order property owners to repair, at their own expense, defective sidewalks abutting their property. But it does allow municipalities to repair sidewalks and, by implication, assess the property owners who benefit from the repair. In practice, Bristol and other municipalities (including several in central Connecticut) have adopted ordinances in which a municipal official can order a property owner to repair an abutting sidewalk. If the owner does not do this, the municipality can do the work and bill the property owner. We have contacted the town attorneys in two of these municipalities (Bristol and Middletown), requesting the authority for their ordinances.
RESPONSIBILITY FOR SIDEWALK REPAIRS
The state Supreme Court has long held that municipalities have no inherent powers but only those granted by the state (Old Colony Gardens, Inc. v. Stamford, 147 Conn. 60 (1939). Before 1982, the law specifically allowed municipalities to make the owners of property abutting sidewalks responsible for their maintenance and repair. If the owner did not make the repairs, the municipality could do the work, with the expense becoming a lien on the property, (CGS § 7-118, revision of 1977). However, PA 82-327 repealed this provision. The legislative history of PA 82-327, which dealt with a broad range of municipal powers, does not address the issue of sidewalk repairs, and we have found no case law relevant to your question.
Municipalities do have power to repair and maintain sidewalks, (CGS § 7-148(c)(6)(C)(i)). They may also be able to impose special assessments for benefits arising from public improvements under their charters or, implicitly, under CGS § 7-148(c)(2)(G). If sidewalk repairs are considered a form of public improvement, these laws can be read together to allow municipalities to assess the owners of property abutting a repaired sidewalk to pay for the municipality's cost of the repair.
In practice, a number of municipalities have adopted ordinances that allow municipal official to order property owners to repair abutting sidewalks. If the owner does not do so, the municipality can repair the sidewalk and assess the owner for the costs of the repairs. In several cases, an unpaid assessment becomes a tax lien. Among the central Connecticut municipalities that have such ordinances are Bristol, Farmington, Meriden, Middletown, Newington, Simsbury, and Wethersfield. Most of these ordinances were adopted before 1982, when these practices were specifically authorized.
In two related 2001 cases, the court found that the provisions of the Bristol ordinance do not make the property owner liable for injuries sustained due to a defective sidewalk, unless the owner created the hazardous condition, e. g. , by piling debris on the sidewalk to hide the defect. Moreover, the court held that municipalities do not have statutory authority to transfer liability to the property owner if the defect was caused by inaction. In contrast, the court noted that CGS § 7-163a
allows municipalities to adopt ordinances transferring liability to abutting property owners for injuries of people who fall on snow- or ice-covered sidewalks (Forster v. Town of Bristol, Superior Court, Judicial District of New Britain at New Britain, No. CV 99-0494356 S, Aug. 14, 2001).