JERRY McBRIDE/Durango Herald
JERRY McBRIDE/Durango Herald
A 94-year-old grandmother is tangling with City Hall over a crooked sidewalk on west 17th Street across from Fassbinder Park.
The city of Durango has sent Sammy Willis a letter asking her to fix the pavement in front of the 139-year-old house where she lives with a 16-year-old sheltie sheepdog named Rocky.
The sidewalk has been deemed to be “unsafe for public travel because its broken and uplifted condition has created tripping hazards. And you are hereby instructed and ordered to replace such portion of the sidewalk,” wrote Gregg Boysen, the city engineer, in a letter to Sammy Willis dated Aug. 29, 2012.
But Sammy Willis and her son, Bill Willis, whom she calls “my Bill,” contend that a city-owned tree located in the public right of way between the street and the sidewalk is responsible for uprooting the sidewalk.
Willis is indignant that the city is picking on his mother, who lives on a fixed income and whose motorized scooter can’t even traverse the crooked pavement.
“The city’s tree has trapped her in the house,” said Bill Willis, who lives in Farmington. “Now, they want her to bear the cost of repairing the city walk. That seems pretty unreasonable to me.”
To fix the sidewalk would cost between $1,500 and $2,000, estimated Bill Willis, who owns a construction company and who has built a backyard deck for his mother.
Bill Willis also notes that the city code holds private property owners responsible for correcting trees that become a “menace to the public.”
If the private property owner does not correct the menace, the ordinance states that “the city arborist will see that the nuisance is corrected and the owner billed for the cost.”
“The owner of the tree shall be billed for the cost. The owner of the tree is the city of Durango,” Bill Willis said. “What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.”
He further argues that the city has been negligent in not putting in curb cuts to make the sidewalk handicap accessible.
The city also broke federal law by putting the sidewalk notice in his mother’s mailbox without any postage, he said. Organizations can be fined as much as $10,000 for such an offense.
Bill Willis’ defense of his mother caught city officials unprepared, not knowing how to respond to his allegations during the regular City Council meeting before Thanksgiving when City Manager Ron LeBlanc was absent.
City councilors were apologetic that Bill Willis made the trip from Farmington without being able to give him much of a response.
City Councilor Christina Rinderle suggested they make the most of it with a “date night” at a “lovely Durango restaurant.”
Councilor Dick White added that “I think we’re all sympathetic” to the sidewalk situation.
“I am acutely aware of triple tripper (sidewalks) in my neighborhood,” White said. “On the way home from council every night, (I see) one in the shadows.”
Councilor Paul Broderick thought Willis had a valid argument because Sammy Willis could not have removed the city tree.
The city manager, who watched the meeting on television, said Willis made some inaccurate statements. LeBlanc, for example, denied setting a public hearing for Sammy Willis’ sidewalk at the meeting earlier this month.
Because the city staff is still preparing a report on the situation for Tuesday’s council meeting, LeBlanc did not want to respond further.
In regard to the Americans with Disabilities Act compliance issue, LeBlanc said such upgrades are made whenever there is a construction project. LeBlanc also called ADA an unfunded mandate since federal funding has gone away.
The city code does give the city manager the authority to “require all property owners within the city to repair all sidewalks on streets in front of their property.”
If the property owner refuses, the city could then put a tax lien on the property to make the owner pay for the repairs.
In the past, the city and private property owners have voluntarily split costs through a 50/50 match sidewalk program. This program was suspended in recent years because of the recession.
Because the voters have approved the La Plata Electric Association franchise fee and the city anticipates $800,000 in additional revenue next year, the city has budgeted $50,000 for 50/50 sidewalks in 2013.
Rinderle asked Bill Willis if 50/50 would be a good compromise.
“That’s not really what I want,” Bill Willis said at the meeting. “I want the city to pay 100 percent.”
Since she moved here in 1952, Sammy Willis said, “Durango has been very good to me.”
She and her husband, Dale, who headed a local employment office, raised five children here. Sammy Willis worked as a secretary at Fort Lewis College for 22 years, getting a grandfather clock upon retirement.
Sammy Willis is eager to see the sidewalk fixed, too. She has seen several people trip and fall, including her daughter-in-law.
“Bill’s wife, Patty, fell, but she did not hurt herself. It has not really affected my routine, but you’re always afraid someone is going to fall and hurt themselves,” she said.
Sammy Willis said she is tight on money and needs to hire a caregiver to check on her and cook her meals.
She already feels isolated even without the hazardous sidewalk outside her front door.
“At 94, you’re pretty well trapped,” she said.